DUBAI // A few moments after the unveiling of the new 2011 Porsche GT3 Challenge Cup car at Dubai Autodrome yesterday morning, a member of the press was overheard repeating a line he had been fed in the paddock by one of the 10 Middle Eastern drivers in the series.
"To drive this car you have to be like a wrestler in your upper body - you know, to fight with the wheel and the stick - and like a ballerina with your feet, to shift from clutch to accelerator to brake," recounted the journalist.
He credited the sound-bite to Khaled al Qubaisi, the only Emirati to compete in the GT3 Challenge in its inaugural season last year and who took the new model Porsche for a test drive the previous afternoon.
Al Qubaisi denies saying anything of the sort, but agrees that the comparison stands up under scrutiny and is adamant Porsche is one of the toughest race cars to drive.
The Abu Dhabi-born driver finished only five of last season's 12 races and as a result chose to enrol in the Porsche Mobil 1 Supercup series in the off-season in a bid to return ready to challenge Prince Abdulaziz al Faisal, the Saudi Arabian winner of last season's Challenge Cup. Al Faisal won the title after holding off a season-long chase from Bahrain's Salman bin Rashid al Khalifa.
"Khaled al Qubaisi has been testing for the whole summer and has picked up a lot of speed, so I think it is going to be a three-way tussle for the title this season," al Faisal said.
There is no doubting al Qubaisi has come a long way since he became the first Emirati to race at Yas Marina - on the weekend of the inaugural Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix no less - and little more than three months since his first competitive race.
"I have improved a lot since the last time," said the 34-year-old, who will line up on the Yas grid once again come November 13 to start the new season of the Challenge Cup, a one-make championship in which all competitors drive identical Porsche 911 cars.
"In the Supercup I started in the opening weekend in March around three and a half seconds off the pace. By the time I went to Monza in September, there was only half a second between me and the top three drivers. My Supercup season was really just to improve myself and get ready for this. As I keep telling the others, experience counts for everything."
The "others" that al Qubaisi refers to are Ibrahim Salloum and Musaed al Murar, the two newest drivers to represent the UAE in the 12-race challenge series. Salloum, 28, was born in London but raised in Abu Dhabi, while al Murar, 25, is a long-time friend of al Qubaisi.
Both men are modest, likeable, realistic figures and appeared happy to take a break from their garages to detail their hopes.
"I don't expect to finish highly in the first race," al Murar said. "But I have to gain experience and so long as I finish I will be pleased. The whole season is going to be a challenge and I think I can maybe challenge for the podium a little, but my main goal must remain simply to finish each race."
Salloum added: "I definitely can't challenge the top five or six drivers, no way. I only drove competitively for the first time 12 months ago. But I am going for Rookie of the Year and shooting to be competitive in the middle of the field."
The presence of three UAE-flag bearing vehicles on the starting grid could take a little pressure off al Qubaisi, who had been the country's sole representative last year.
"We are all close and it is great that we have three UAE drivers now as this country needs to build on its success," he said. "There is a slight rivalry, of course, but rivalry and competition is good. I would love to be facing pressure in a race from Ibrahim and Musaed and I cannot wait for the season to start."