It has been a memorable 12 months for Khaled Al Qubaisi, since he last raced in Abu Dhabi. A victory at Dubai’s 24-hour race last January was followed by his becoming the first Emirati to finish the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Next up, on Friday, is the Gulf 12 Hours at Yas Marina Circuit, with teammates Bernd Schneider of Germany and the Dutchman Jeroen Bleekemolen.
“It’s been a good year for me,” Al Qubaisi said. “It started out on a high note with the win in the 24 Hours of Dubai and, after that, we put together an endurance programme for the rest of the year.
“We did the Nurburgring 24 Hour endurance race; it was great experience in some of the toughest weather conditions. We came 15th out of 250 cars. For me it was the first time driving there. It is 25 kilometres, very tough and needed a lot of practice.”
Then of course, there was the big one, in June.
“At Le Mans, we were the only private team and we finished in the top 10” of the GT2 class.
“It was an amazing experience.”
It is unlikely, however, that any of these races will be as poignant as his next one.
In October, the British driver Sean Edwards, Al Qubaisi’s teammate and friend, died at age 26 while riding as a passenger in private testing in Australia. For the members of Team Abu Dhabi by Black Falcon, the Gulf 12 Hours has turned into a tribute to their friend.
“It’s still hard to believe we lost Sean,” Al Qubaisi, 37, said. “I’ve known him since 2009, when he first watched us race, and then drove with us. I’ve watched him mature as a man and a driver. It’s really sad we lost him to this tragic accident.”
Team Abu Dhabi, who have entered two AMG SLS GT3s, will carry the British driver’s name on the cars and on the drivers’ helmets, and will be raising awareness of the Sean Edwards Foundation in the UAE.
“This is a very emotional week as Sean was due to be sharing the driving in the first car, and he would have been staying with myself and my family,” Al Qubaisi said earlier this week.
“What we will try and do is honour his name; it will be on the car and his mother has already set up a foundation in his name, and I’m honoured to be one of the trustees.”
Edwards’s death hit Schneider and Bleekemolen hard, too.
“We were all very close to Sean,” Bleekemolen said. “We had great times together and lots of success, too. It’s strange to be here without him, and we wish he was with us. Now we hope to achieve a good result here, but no one will ever forget him.”
Once on the track, it will be all business. The team that finished ninth last year are aiming to be “serious contenders” this time around, Al Qubaisi said.
“Last year we did really well here; we had the second-fastest lap,” he said. “The guy who got the fastest was in a McLaren car; they had issues and just wanted to get the fastest lap, so they did it without having a full fuel tank like I did.”
The Emirati dismisses suggestions that his hometown circuit will give him an advantage.
“The track is very well known by almost all of the drivers here,” he said. “Also, I’ve had such a busy schedule that I haven’t raced here for a while. And then, of course, in the summer there was no racing here, so in a way it’s a disadvantage. I’m actually practising to try and refresh my memory of the track.”
Yas Marina Circuit, not surprisingly, remains close to his heart.
“It is the most spectacular track in the world, and not by a little but by a large margin,” Al Qubaisi said. “Everything about it, the views, the facilities and, very importantly, the safety also.”
Schneider, 49, is a five-time German Touring Car champion Schneider, 49, has not missed much in his career, but this will be his first competitive experience at Yas Marina Circuit. “I’ve been here a few times for other events, but it’s my first time racing on the track,” he said.
“I like it very much. It has low corners, hard brakes. Practice here has gone well; we have good balance to the team, although the car is not 100 per cent ready yet.”
Bleekemolen, 32, echoes his teammates’ affection for the track.
“We do like to come to Abu Dhabi,” he said.
“I would say that Yas has the best facilities in the world. You get a very special feeling driving around this circuit.”
For Al Qubaisi, it is impossible to discuss 2013 without talk returning to the 24 Hours at Le Mans.
“It’s hard to describe, really,” he said.
“You start preparing one week in advance, and then you build up towards the race.
“It has such a rich history; last year was the 90th anniversary race. There is a lot of heritage and memories attached to the whole event. It also has all the top teams and drivers and is as good as it gets in endurance racing.
“My plan was to experience it and the target was to finish in the top 10.”
He has set a higher target for 2014. “Next year we are aiming not just for a top-10 finish, but for the podium,” he said.
On Friday, Team Abu Dhabi are aiming to prevent a third successive Ferrari victory at Yas, then will attempt to win a third successive triumph in next month’s Dunlop 24 Hours of Dubai. Al Qubaisi believes that back-to-back victories in the UAE would be the perfect way to honour Edwards.
It would also set up the three drivers for another programme of endurance racing across 2014.
“Hopefully, we can come back [to Abu Dhabi] next year, and to the Dubai 24 hours as well,” Bleekemolen said.
“The race is growing every year. This is the third edition and, of course, it will take time to be like Le Mans, but in a few years it will be up there with some of the best.”
Schneider is a little cagier, but seems to be enjoying the ride just as much. “At my age you are just thinking about the next year, and not too much down the line,” he said.
Al Qubaisi does not see Friday’s race in Abu Dhabi as merely preparation for Dubai next month. The motto is “constant improvement and practice”.
“For me every race is good preparation, and we really want to win,” he said as he prepares to end 2013 the way he started it.
After that, the focus will shift to the Dubai Autodrome on January 11.
“It will be my fourth race there, and we’ve won in the last two years,” Al Qubaisi said. “I knew after we won the first time that this was for me; the focus since then has been on endurance racing.”
For someone who started racing competitively at 33, Al Qubaisi’s career trajectory continues to show a steep rise.
“We’re coming back to hopefully win it again,” he said before pausing. “And to prove we are the kings of Dubai.”
On Friday, he could well be crowned the king of Yas Marina Circuit too.