A homecoming weekend let us call it, for Al Nabooda Racing. The Dubai-based outfit has been around for seven years now, racing in the Gulf Radical Cup and the UAE GT series, but today and Friday, in rounds 5 and 6 of the Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge Middle East at the Dubai Autodrome, they have their eye on a bigger picture.
Karim Al Azhari and Clemens Schmid have already ensured that Al Nabooda tops the team title table – the category has been introduced this season – and they are keen to extend their lead over the Saudi Falcons in front of a home crowd.
The team was in the series last year, explains team manager Vijay Rao, but Al Azhari was not a constant fixture and Schmid was not yet signed up. In terms of the experience of other teams in the series, Al Nabooda is still green.
"We had limited success last season but we were happy with it. Karim was only in six races and it was very short notice when we decided to participate. I had to run half the races with another driver. The idea was to learn about the race, drivers, competition, tracks, dynamics of the race that season."
Schmid and Al Azhari (who is also president of the Porsche Club UAE and Abu Dhabi-born incidentally) have been prominent through the season so far; Schmid won the season's first two rounds in Bahrain and finished second in round 4 at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi last weekend.
Al Azhari stands second in the overall individual standings meanwhile, 12 points behind the reigning champion, the Saudi Abdulaziz Al Faisal.
Last weekend in Abu Dhabi, he finished second and fourth in the two rounds.
The Emirati is a circuit veteran who has been with Al Nabooda from the start, and remembers the days before the Autodrome Circuit, when races were arranged on temporary circuits at Fujairah and Ras Al Khaimah airports. And the Autodrome is a familiar and successful circuit, even if there will be hometown pressure.
"It is much more pressure but I think that is why it will help us, that pressure will make us work harder in front of our home crowd because we really want to show them the strength of Al Nabooda racing," he says.
"The circuit is very different to Yas, it's a very fast and very technical circuit, which I believes suits my style. I'll hope to use my strengths as a driver to overcome what I lack in experience. I'm up against drivers in their fourth year and this is my first full season which is a disadvantage but my strengths as a driver here, on my home circuit, where I've won many championships can give me a boost."
Individual glory currently seems secondary to the team's aspirations (Rao admits that though competing in series such as the Carrera Cup is not on the horizon, the possibility of doing so exists); they are seven points ahead of the Falcons for now and the Austrian Schmid says maintaining that lead over the final half of the series is the main aim.
"We are still the leading team coming into Dubai and here we can win again, so we're in a good position to win team title overall and that is the main target for us," he said.
Schmid was signed up this season after a brief but impressive impact in the series last year. Racing on his own, budgetary issues prevented him from competing in all 12 rounds, but he won five of the six that he took part in, attracting Al Nabooda's interest in the process.
But for two mishaps in Yas last weekend – Schmid's gearbox linkage broke while he was leading in round 3 forcing him to pull out, while his car spun out of control briefly in round 4, before he regained control and ended second – Al Nabooda could have come into Dubai not only leading the team standings, but with the top two individual racers.
"For us as a team, this season has been fantastic," says Al Azhari. "It's been difficult and required a lot of hard work, but we were very focused on the championship from the beginning and have managed to put ourselves on top of the team table.
"But there's very good drivers in the series and no race is going to be easy. So we must continue to work even harder to try and keep Al Nabooda at the top."
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