INTERVIEW: Al Balooshi motivated to make his return

Jay Asser 2/09/2016
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On track: Mohammed Al Balooshi at the third stage of the 2016 Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge.

More than four months after suffering a crash that resulted in a fractured knee and concussion, Mohammed Al Balooshi is back to full strength and eager to once again compete on his bike.

The injuries occurred at April’s Sealine Cross-Country Rally, which was the second round of the 2016 FIM Cross Country Rallies World Championship. Now, the Emirati is eyeing the Emirates Desert Championship, which begins on October 14, to stage his comeback and remind the motocross world he’s far from finished and still has plenty left in the tank.

Sport360 caught up with the 36-year-old to talk about his journey back from the crash, how the recovery period was a blessing in disguise and his motivation for the coming season.

Where are you at right now in your recovery from the injuries?

Yeah, good. I have five more weeks until the season opener, so I’m quite back to normal. It has been really tough, especially the first few weeks, but I now feel like it’s back to normal. I have some nagging pains, but it’s okay, it’s part of the sport.

When you suffered the crash in April, how concerned were you about your riding career?

I was more concerned with my head, not so much about my knee because I knew my knee I could repair. I’ve broken my bones all over my body many times so I knew this was going to be okay. But I banged my head quite hard and it was really tough the first three, four weeks because I kept having the spins. The room would spin whenever I woke up and laid down. This was worrying me a bit after the CAT scan and MRI, but luckily, it was just a bad, bad crash and time would heal it and it did.

Prior to that crash, I had a couple of concussions, so I was a bit worried about that part. But there were no thoughts of ‘should I continue?’ There was none of that. I just wanted to make sure my head was okay and getting back to my recovery.

These things only make you stronger. You realise health is very important so you work even harder so you are always in shape and fit, preventing these things from happening. Or if it happens, the damage should be less because you learn from each crash.

With all the research and findings on concussions, how worried are you about head injuries going forward?

Honestly, I’m quite a positive guy. I don’t let it get to me, so I’m not really concerned. I’ve changed my helmet brand, even though the helmet I was wearing did the job, but I wanted to go one notch better. I did a lot of research. For me, I really don’t let it get to me. The more you think about it, the more it will hurt your performance.

For me, this is what I’m passionate about and what I do for a living. I’m still young and I feel good on the bike. This is what matters. Injuries are part of it.

I’ve been working really hard. During the down time, I wasn’t allowed to do a lot of exercises or movement, so I didn’t do anything for eight to nine weeks. Because of that, I gained a lot of weight. When you don’t move a lot, every day is a ‘cheat day’ basically.

Since I’m back – today marks 90 days since I’ve been practicing – I feel really good and I’ve lost all my extra weight I gained during those eight-and-a-half weeks. I’m back to my racing weight.

What was the most challenging aspect of the comeback?

The hardest part is the hard work. I knew I could do it all over again because I’ve done it in the past many, many times, but just the thought of it is not easy. Day in and day out, you do the same stuff and have to get good at cycling, running and weights. It’s starting from zero. I was like 6kg heavier and my stamina wasn’t there, so I had to take it a day at a time. The good thing is I always record what I do, like my heart rate and how many kilometres I’ve done. I can see I’m going in the right direction.

What are your expectations for this season?

I always train to perform well and to win, honestly. I don’t train to go do 80 per cent. I train to do 100 per cent and compete for the title. Two years in a row in the Emirates Desert Championship I’ve been coming short, finishing second. This year I would like to win it.

This injury really motivated me because a lot of people wrote me off. I kind of like it. The thing is our community is very small, everybody talks and you hear what they say.

I knew a lot of riders said ‘that’s it, this season is done for Balooshi’ and this kept me going. Twice a day I was working out and getting back in shape.

I’m really, really looking forward to the season opener and to go for that title. This is my goal this year more than anything. Last year, of course, the aim was the Cross Country Rallies World Championship. I was spending my energy in that so in the local championship, I wasn’t on my A-game.

This year, I want to give my all to win the Emirates Desert Championship. From there, we’ll prepare for the Cross Country Rallies World Championship.

Also, one thing was that I did not have a break, not a single week, for 24 months until my crash. I’m optimistic, so I thought I got injured but it’s good in a way because my body needed that break. I needed to recharge my batteries.

That break must have been nice to also spend some time with your family and children?

Oh yeah. When I’m at rallies, each rally is like seven days and you’re out of the country for 10 days. I always have this guilty feeling that I don’t spend enough time with the kids, but this eight-and-a-half weeks I did a lot with the kids. It was good. It’s made me more positive somehow. I’m usually a positive person but it made me even more positive, thinking [the crash] happened for a good reason.

How were you killing time during that period? You must have picked up a hobby or smashed out Netflix.

No man, my thing was food. My soul is of a 300kg huge guy. For me, I usually eat what I feel like, but I eat in moderation. But when you’re injured, you go flat out.

I also spent a lot of time with the kids at the playground. We went to SEGA Republic and I played with them. It was different. I could only do so much though because I wasn’t supposed to move around a lot, but it was their time.

Do you feel you still have plenty left to give to the sport?

Me? Always. I’m still hungry for it. I still get butterflies before races and that feeling is not done. Once it’s done, then I’ll stop, but it’s still there so I have to answer the call. I still have to accomplish my goals.

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Sulayem: Dubai Autodrome Initiative can help UAE talent

Sport360 staff 15/08/2016
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Sulayem, President of the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE and the Emirates Motor Sport Federation, is giving his full backing to the first Emirates Motorsport Expo which is designed to identify a range of entry level opportunities for enthusiasts.

The unique event takes place at Dubai Autodrome on 2 September and Mohammed Ben Sulayem, the Expo’s patron, says: “It’s a great new initiative to bridge the gap between the public and motor sport sectors.

“In order to encourage motorsport in the UAE we need to ensure that future competitors and stakeholder have the knowledge and platform to begin their careers in motor sport.

“It is the vision and goal of the ATCUAE to provide these platforms while continuing to ensure all levels of UAE motor sport is kept to the highest standard.”

Organised by Dubai Autodrome in collaboration with the ATCUAE, and with the support of the Dubai Sports Council, the Emirates Motorsport Expo will bring together all forms of UAE motor sport, from circuit racing to cross country rallying for cars and bikes.

Those interested in becoming actively involved in motor sport will have the opportunity to meet teams, competitors and key stakeholders.

​Among the top racing teams present will be AUH Motorsport (Radicals), Dragon Racing (NGK & F4), Formula Gulf Academy (single seater), GP Extreme (NGK & F1) Saluki Motorsport (off-road) and UAE Superbikes.

The ATCUAE, the national motor sport authority, sporting organisers of the F1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, will use the opportunity to highlight the attractions of the new UAE Formula 4 Championship.

Aimed at young drivers aged from 15-years-old in the Middle East and North African region, the Championship will feature 18 races held over six events at both the Dubai Autodrome and Yas Marina circuits between October 2016 and March 2017.

“The new Formula 4 Championship is a very exciting addition to the UAE motor sport calendar, and one of the purposes of the new Expo is to spotlight the wide range of opportunities that exist here for enthusiasts at entry level,” said Richard Birch, General Manager of Dubai Autodrome.

“We are very grateful to Mohammed ben Sulayem and his team at the ATCUAE for the support they are providing for this new event, and we look forward to working with them to ensure that it goes from strength to strength and helps attract a new wave of young talent into the sport.”

The Expo will feature key note speakers from teams, drivers and ATCUAE officials, as well as a range of ‘Passenger Ride Experiences’ on the Autodrome circuit in various race and road cars.

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A Day With: Endurance racing champion Brendon Hartley

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Endurance champion: Brendan Hartley.

Brendon Hartley is living every young motorsport fan’s dream – competing for the legendary Porsche marque in the prestigious World Endurance Championship. Alongside motor racing icons Mark Webber and Timo Bernhard, the New Zealander won the WEC title last year, but the 26-year-old’s career hasn’t always been hurtling along at full throttle.

He was recruited by Red Bull aged 18 and was named a Formula One reserve driver for the 2009 season, sharing the role with Daniel Ricciardo. However, while Ricciardo went on to fame and fortune, the Austrian manufacturer dropped Hartley in 2010.

He rebounded, making a name for himself in the European Le Mans Series as well as in America, before an email he sent to Porsche set him back on the right track to success.

Hartley was in Abu Dhabi with the rest of his Porsche team-mates earlier this year in preparation for the new WEC season, and Sport360 raced along to speak to him.

Has winning the World Endurance Championship seen a big change in your life?

To go home after the fantastic season we’d had, knowing I had a contract for next year and knowing I didn’t have to be on the phone every night looking for a ride for next year, that was a nice feeling. I could relax and switch off for one month.

It was a big experience for me the last two years, working with Timo and Mark. I think I’ve progressed as a driver along the way. We’ve grown together and being champion changes a few things. Now the expectation gets higher and we have a big target on the side of the car.

It’s a big bullseye for everyone else and we know that. But we come into the new season full of confidence.

You were without a ride a few years ago, having been cast aside by Red Bull. Why do you think Porsche signed you?

In 2013 I was racing in European Le Mans Series, as well as the US. I felt I was driving the best I ever had. I sent an email to Porsche not really expecting a reply and Andreas (Seidl, team principal) replied and said ‘let’s meet up’. It was just to say please have a look at what I’m doing.

They were looking for someone young, with Le Mans experience, and I think it helped I’d had so much F1 experience too.

I wasn’t really sure if I had a chance but I guess they liked me and I think they wanted to take a chance on someone young. It was unexpected for a lot of people, including me, but I think the timing was right.

Did you automatically think you were back in the big time or did it take time?

I felt a weight and that I had to prove myself. I was cautious, I couldn’t make a mistake and I think I perhaps put a bit too much pressure on myself. It took me a while to get comfortable in this environment. I was a bit conservative to start with. It’s a big step up and I knew it was a huge chance for me.

Have you learnt a lot from Mark and Timo?

Big time. The more we knew each other, the more we worked as a team. We have a completely open relationship. I also like to think I had a lot of things to bring to the table and we all contributed on the same level.

A lot of it was outside of the car, how they managed themselves mentally or when to speak up, when not to, controlling your emotions and just working in such a big project. I learnt a lot from them along the way.

You are living proof that there is life after the Red Bull young driver programme. Was it difficult to readjust after you got let go?

To be honest, I saw it coming in 2010. I wasn’t doing such a good job. It was a dark time because I wasn’t performing well. I just missed out on the opportunity. I was really dreaming of but the thing was I recovered and I learnt a lot from that process.

Not getting the F1 seat in 2009 when I was kind of lined up, it was a big kick in the guts and took me a long time to recover. I think when I stopped though, it was a new start. It was the first time I had to sit down and say ‘what’s the plan now?’

Before that, it was always controlled by Red Bull, I didn’t have to think for myself. The other thing is I didn’t have an option. I’m living on the other side of the world and, as a New Zealander, racing is all I know. I had to keep trying. I think that’s why a lot of us Kiwis have been successful.

To make the big move to Europe to realise our dreams is a big commitment, we make a lot of sacrifices so it was an easy decision to keep fighting.

Winning trio: Webber, Bernhard and Hartley.

Winning trio: Webber, Bernhard and Hartley.

You grew up in a racing family and are close to your father and older brother. What is your relationship like with them?

I always followed in my brother’s footsteps. My father and brother together have an engineering company, they build and design race engines. I was there after school when I was doing Formula Ford changing the engine at 13 and putting the car together.

I’m not a skilled mechanic, far from it. My brother and father will vouch for me on that. It was us three back home. I enjoyed those days. I was very lucky. They both raced too and I learnt a lot from them.

Pablo Montoya famously said there is a big book you have to study as a Porsche driver, something like 200 pages long. Is that true?

We have a drivers’ manual. I’m not sure how many pages but it’s more than I can count on my fingers and toes. But for sure I’ve read it.

Did you consider America and IndyCar?

In the very early days I had some support from a group of people who helped Scott Dixon (New Zealand driver) get to IndyCar. A lot of us looked up to what he was doing and it inspired us.

The initial plan was to go there, but we never had funding to achieve that goal. The funding we had got me to the Toyota Racing Series which then got me noticed by Red Bull. The goal immediately changed to Europe. I’ve since fallen in love with endurance racing and Le Mans.

I’m sad I didn’t follow it as a kid. I felt like I’d been missing something.

Do you have any desire to one day go back to F1?

I would never say never, but I absolutely love where I am. I have a dream job, I’m driving with Porsche at Le Mans with Mark and Timo. The way things are going you need to be younger and younger but in terms of driving I’m not at my peak and people saying you have to be under 20 is rubbish.

I know I’m still getting better and better, especially driving against Mark and Timo.

What’s it like having a legend like Mark as a team-mate?

It’s cool and we’ve become friends. He’s just a good guy. I’m lucky to be working with both Mark and Timo, they’re both legends. They share their wisdom with me.

Motorsport is in the family, but as a Kiwi how did you stay out of the clutches of rugby as a kid?

My body shape. It wasn’t a hard decision to not try out for the All Blacks. I grew up at the racetrack. Racing’s in the blood.

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