One driver is a veteran forced to play second fiddle and described by others as solid and reliable. His teammate is young, indomitable and speaks with a German accent. The team are reigning champions.
They are not Red Bull Racing.
Karim Al Azhari is a 40-year-old Emirati, a multiple UAE championship winner and a man so committed to motor racing that when asked what he does between races, replies, “I wait for the next race”.
Austria’s Clemens Schmid, 23, won nine out of 12 races in last year’s Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge Middle East, has a perfect record so far this season and spends non-race weekends skiing in Central Europe.
“They are different characters and that’s the reason we got them both in the same team,” Vijay Rao, the team principal of Al Nabooda Racing, said. “Clemens is the guy who is going to go for the kill and Karim is the guy who is going to hold position and score points.”
So far, it has proved — much like Red Bull’s pairing of Germany’s Sebastian Vettel and Australia’s Mark Webber — highly productive. The last time a driver other than Schmid or Al Azhari finished atop the podium was at Yas Marina Circuit more than a year ago. Al Nabooda Racing have since won the 2012/13 Teams’ Championship comfortably, outscoring nearest rivals Saudi Falcons by a hefty 41 points.
At the 2013/14 opening weekend in Bahrain a two weeks ago, Rao’s marque picked up where they left off, with Schmid taking wins in both rounds.
Starting on Thursday, he intends to add a third and fourth trophy at the Dubai Autodrome, extending his flawless run.
“We have won both team trophies and now we hope to do it at our home race in Dubai, which is my favourite track in the Middle East,” said Schmid, who won both races here last season. “To me, the races in Bahrain were pretty good, but I hope that, at the Autodrome, we can improve our performance a little bit. We are working hard to create a gap on our rivals.”
Such talk is ominous. In the second race at Bahrain International Circuit, he finished more than eight seconds ahead of second-place Zaid Ashkanani. And in a car that he concedes he has yet to fully understand, too.
This weekend, though, on a track where he won his first race, Schmid is confident of adding further glory.
“Especially the way we are driving now, it’s a really tricky track and the field is really close,” he said. “One mistake and you slip five or six places down the grid. It’s getting very difficult, but I hope we can continue our high level of performance.”
Al Azhari, who won the final race of last season, claimed a podium in Bahrain after crossing the line third in the first race of the season, but he endured a torrid second round to finish 10th and is determined to set that right this weekend. He had nothing but praise for his teammate, though, and complimented Schmid’s attitude and focus.
“Of course, I would like to beat Clemens. I am looking for maximum points, but we have a very good relationship,” Al Azhari said. “I would like to say that my race experience means I know what to do in a race, but my limited experience in a 911 Cup car with these tyres means I am still trying to learn how to get the most out of the package. But myself and Clemens have the same goals: To win the team championship.”
Schmid’s superiority has inevitably led those around him to wonder where he might go next. While his mother wanted him to become a professional skier, his team manager, Rao, believes the top level of endurance racing is a realistic target.
“Clemens is driving at his absolute peak. I expect him to lead and to win and be consistently at the front,” Rao said. “There is a little bit of pressure on him, especially this weekend at our home race, but he handles pressure very well. He is a cool guy. Eventually, I think he wants to race for the factory team, but it could take some years.”
An example of just how tough it is to earn a seat at the factory team can be found in this year’s new recruit at Porsche: a former Red Bull Racing driver often referred to as solid and reliable.
Webber is expected to make his racing debut early next year.
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