SAKHIR, BAHRAIN — While the army of international Formula One fans revelled in the battle at the top of the grid between Ferrari and Mercedes in Bahrain, it was a man in the middle of the field who was drawing some of the biggest support from motorsport’s burgeoning Middle East fans.
Sauber driver Felipe Nasr may well be a Brazilian with Lebanese roots but to his eve- increasing number of followers in the Gulf he is an Arab.
One of their own, racing at the pinnacle of motorsport with his name written in Arabic on his helmet, Nasr is a poster boy for F1 in the Middle East.
It means that when Nasr arrives in Bahrain or Abu Dhabi for the respective grands prix, he has the full backing of the locals.
“Everywhere in the Middle East it is really nice to see the fans. They see the name Nasr and they come up to the race,” the 22-year-old told Sport360 in Sakhir.
“I see that as a very positive thing to happen. A lot of Lebanese fans came across this weekend and I think this is growing so it’s good to see that I have the support from the other side of the world.
— Sauber F1 Team (@SauberF1Team) April 18, 2015
“I think it is great in every aspect. First of all to honour my Lebanese roots, starting with my grandfather and I’m very proud of it to bring this to the Middle East and especially my Lebanese fans as Formula One is very good for them [with me in it], I’d say. I am always happy if they want to support me.”
It was Nasr’s grandfather who was born in Lebanon in the 1960s before moving to Brazil to start a new life with his family.
Since then, Arab culture has been engrained in the young Lebanese-Brazilian despite his failure to yet visit his ancestral homeland.
“I’ve never really had the time to do it. Every time I get the break in July I go back to Brazil because my whole family is there. I still have some family relatives in Lebanon but I still plan to come. At some point I will.”
When that day comes, Nasr is certain to be welcomed with open arms.
For now, he is glad to see motorsport of all varieties in the GCC gaining added exposure around F1 events, such as the weekend’s climax of the Porsche GT3 Middle East Cup which played out before Nasr & co. took to the Bahrain International Circuit.
“It’s always good. I’ve been to support events as well and it’s something very positive. It’s a plus to have it around,” said Nasr.
Growing up around karting in Brazil, Nasr made the move to Europe as a 17-year-old in 2009 to compete in Formula BMW Europe.
A year later and he moved again, this time to British F3 where he enjoyed impressive success, winning the 2011 title ahead of future McLaren driver Kevin Magnussen.
Nasr then progressed into GP2 racing before he was given test-drive seat with Williams, of which his first outing just so happened to be in Bahrain.
The man from Brasilia believes that this path is one that Arab drivers with dreams of one day making it in F1 will also have to take in order to compete in the best cars against the best drivers in the world.
“To be honest if I had kept on racing in Brazil, I would never become a Formula One driver, so I had to move from my country to pursue my dream.
“I moved to Europe to race against the best drivers with experienced teams so I think that should be the same way that [Arab drivers] follow. Hopefully we will see a few more in the future.”
Although Nasr could only manage 12th-place finish in Bahrain, he has made great strides in his first full year as an F1 driver.
A fifth-place outing in Melbourne was followed up by more points in China as he secured eighth, while another 12th place run in Malaysia was hardly a disappointment for the relative rookie.
But for problems on his option tyres in Bahrain and his own “misunderstanding” about one of his car’s switches, further points could well have been his.
“What it looks like is that I was struggling with a lot of over steer in the car on the option tyres,” Nasr revealed. “It was difficult to have a long stint on them. I was having quite a big degradation on the option tyres.
“Also, I was fighting a lot of traffic which wasn’t good for the tyres. It always compromises the race a bit in traffic although once I got past [Felipe] Massa it felt like I had clean air to push and have more from the tyres – but then we lost two places on the pit stop which again I think compromised our race.
“Then, what I think happened, was in the middle of the race when I had lost power was a misunderstanding from myself about one of the switches and we had a problem on the power unit which the switch change caused.
“It took us quite a lot of time that it was a change of switches [needed] to get the power back but by that time we had lost two seconds already. It took us seven laps to react to this problem.”
While obviously disappointed by his failure to register more points this weekend, Nasr was optimistic of the Sauber car’s pace towards the end of the race.
“What I was really positive to see was our pace on the medium tyres toward the end, which was very strong. Looking back now, maybe we could have tried a different strategy than stopping two times for prime because for me I could have gone very long on them and had a good performance.
“It’s been a difficult weekend but if we have a clean race without this problem we will be able to score again.”
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