The careers of most Formula One drivers, from Lewis Hamilton, a relative newcomer, to Michael Schumacher, the ageing veteran, are rooted in the same humble beginnings: go-karting. Karting is the Little League of motorsport. It is the industry's long-established learning ground, a discipline where drivers discover, hone and showcase their skills in front of potential future employers.
It is also, in all likelihood, where the first Emirati Formula One driver - perhaps a youngster yet to contemplate his first double-digit birthday - will be found. The proof is in the pudding: Renault's Vitaly Petrov is the only current F1 driver who does not have a karting background. Karting, the experts maintain, is where the UAE's search for racing talent should be focused. "To have an Emirati F1 driver is a dream, but it's an obtainable dream," Paul Velasco, the communications manager at Dubai Autodrome, said. "There is a path to that dream and it is through the prioritisation of grassroots programmes.
"If getting an Emirati driver into Formula One is the local authorities' aim, then attention needs to be paid to karting. That's where it all starts. Karting is where kids discover if they have an affinity for the sport and if they have talent." Currently, the only karting tracks in the UAE are at the Dubai Autodrome and Al Ain Raceway. A new facility at Yas Marina Circuit - a dedicated 800-metre kart track expected to open in time for November's F1 race - will be the first open-to-all karting facility within the capital's city limits.
That is a big step forward, say industry insiders. From track managers to the young drivers themselves, everyone seems to agree that local children need proper facilities and instruction to progress. Mohamed al Mutawaa, the UAE's hottest young national talent, is a case in point. "I only started two years ago and I wish I had started at five," the 17-year-old House of Portier and TAM Auto Engineer driver said. He is one of only three boys, from 700 Emirati applicants, who won the inaugural HSBC Racing Academy and a chance to compete in Europe.
"Racing is all about experience and it's going to be very difficult for me because I began so late," he said "The problem is I don't really have anyone to teach me." Velasco stressed the need for family involvement, as well: "Motor-racing at this level is a family affair, mothers make sandwiches and fathers help with the fine-tuning and technical aspects. It is all about showing support," he said. "Khandooras have to get dirty - it's the only way."
Khalid al Qubaisi, 34, drives for Team Abu Dhabi in the Porsche Supercup, the F1 support series. He realises he started too late to become an F1 driver, but he hopes to help develop young drivers attain what he could not. "It's critical if we want to go anywhere in the sport that we have strategies and structures in place to build our young talents in stages," he said. "You cannot build anything without a base and we need to focus our attention on kids as young as eight.
"We spend a lot of money on big events with the ambition of them becoming self-sustainable and profitable in the future, but the benefits to our economy and society will come from local participation. "We need to build a connection for Emiratis to engage in the sport, that will come through encouraging our youth to get involved much earlier than they currently are." Velasco also has ideas for the development of young drivers.
"I'd like to see money invested in 30 to 40 karts which can be used in two 20-car divisions for eight to 12 and 12 to 15 year olds," he said. "Why not start an all-Emirati championship, or an academy? If I had to call out to the relevant authorities, I'd tell them to spend money on the karting and move on from there." The notion that the UAE's first racing star is just around the corner, however, is at best a speculative one. There are several genuine Emirati prospects - many of them Al Ain Raceway members - competing in various national championships, but almost all are over 20.
"Kids need to start at seven or eight and to do that we need to go round the schools and speak with parents; we must alter the idea of what karting is in the Emirati mindset," said Haytham Sultan Ali al Ali, 21. "More facilities will help, but people still do not understand motor-sport. The culture needs to change. People do not know that karting is where it all starts, they do not know that Schumacher and Hamilton all started in karts. We must raise awareness of karting as the starting point for future drivers."
Al Ain Raceway currently leads the charge in developing local talent. It is arguably the UAE's best karting facility in terms of track design, configuration options and technical assistance for would-be enthusiasts. But the new Yas Island facility may prove more convenient for families who do not want to make the drive the Al Ain or Dubai. "Initially we will have an 'arrive and drive' scheme with an emphasis on attracting kids looking to have fun. It's about building a fan-base at first," said Stephen Umfreville, Yas Marina Circuit's commercial director. "From there we'll introduce educational programmes that teach kids racing basics. We want to attract as many people as possible and identify the serious prospects."
Far from viewing Yas's karting debut as direct competition, Guy Sheffield, Al Ain Raceway's general manager, believes inter-facility collaboration is the only way to increase the domestic pool of drivers. "We're developing relationships with the people at Yas that go far beyond the usual corporate emphasis that dominates local karting programmes," Sheffield said. "In fairness, that's the money maker, but we aren't faced with the same financial predicaments and can devote more of our time to developing programmes for Emiratis.
"We need to make karting as accessible as possible and, although general awareness is starting to creep in, we need to start identifying drivers at a reasonable age who can learn race craft - through karting - early in their careers. "Short-term, resources need to be put in place for those who do have the skills to go and experience international series because preparing our young talents for the racing realities they'll face elsewhere is tough - grids here just aren't big enough."
Another stumbling block in turning racing dreams to reality is over the safety of karting. "Parents think karting is dangerous, but if they actually came and saw the sport they'd feel far more comfortable. With the rules and regulations, it is very safe," said Sheikh Khalid Khalifa al Nahyan, who at 22 is one of Al Ain Raceway's most promising - albeit elder - prospects. "Only when the parents see that it is safe will they push their child to drive in races in the country, outside the country, but always for the country."
Families unsure of what is required to aid their children's racing dreams would do well to study the al Rawahi model. Both parents readily foster the burgeoning careers of their sons Sanad, 15, and Abdullah, 13. The boys compete in the UAE because of an absence of facilities in Oman. Still at school, their commitment has been matched by a doting father's financial and physical pledge. "From day one I could see they had talent, so they deserve the support," said Suleiman al Rawahi.
The al Rawahi brothers harbour the inevitable F1 dream. Abdullah started karting when he was eight and has already had tutelage - in the UK and Al Ain - from Kieran Crawley, Hamilton's former karting trainer. It is a notable marker in how far the unknown Emirati hopeful is from reaching the same F1 goal. "I think starting so young will help me get the experience I need for when I'm older," Abdullah said. "Otherwise it would be hard for me to break through the ranks. It will help me when I move up to single seater competitions and eventually when I get to Formula One."