x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Emiratis race to be first F1 driver

Abu Dhabi wants to produce an Emirati Formula One driver for the Grand Prix.

Jenson Button takes a turn at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix last November. If an Emirati were on the track, you'd see more flags in the grandstand.
Jenson Button takes a turn at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix last November. If an Emirati were on the track, you'd see more flags in the grandstand.

ABU DHABI // Organisers of the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix have never concealed their ambition.

Behind the multimillion-dirham Yas Marina Circuit, which for three days each year welcomes the world to a festival of speed, lies a long-term goal born closer to home: Abu Dhabi wants to produce an Emirati Formula One driver.

The objective is not solely to provide a new generation with an Arab hero. Officials also recognise that it will immensely benefit the annual race and build an interest in motorsports that goes beyond the glitz of the Paddock Club and glamour of the Amber Lounge, both elite spaces that accompany each race.

As the circuit's chief executive Richard Cregan told The National after last year's race: "We believe we can have an Emirati driver in Formula One within 10 years. The Grand Prix was obviously a huge success, but imagine if there was an Emirati driver in Formula One … "

The UAE and South Korea are the only countries from this year's 19-race, 18-nation calendar that have never had a national representative involved in the sport.

Spain is the most obvious example of what can be achieved with a national representative. At the end of the 20th century, F1 was virtually unknown to Spaniards, but when Fernando Alonso joined the Minardi team in 2001, things started to change. The Asturias-born driver won world championships in 2005 and 2006 and since then, with the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona and the European Grand Prix in Valencia, the country features on the year-long calendar more than any other.

Spain also has another local driver in Jaime Alguersuari and a Spanish-based team in Hispania Racing.

The influence a local driver has is not always so obvious, however. Since Shanghai hosted the first Chinese Grand Prix in 2004, F1 has struggled to make a noticeable impact on the country. But scratch beneath the surface and progress is being made, says Tung Ho-Pin, the only Chinese driver actively involved in the sport.

"China is a bit of a different story compared to Spain because it is such a big country with many different cultures and is very successful in all types of sport," said the Lotus-Renault reserve driver.

"Chinese people are a bit spoilt in terms of sports, but I can definitely see from the moment I started racing up until now, there is a lot more general interest in racing."

Tung, 28, recently set up an account with a Chinese service similar to Twitter and reached 25,000 followers within two days.

He also says CCTV, the state-owned public service broadcaster, told him this year's race in April attracted around 40 million viewers.

"You are not really aware of the growth because F1 is relatively small in China compared to the likes of basketball," he said. "Also, because China is so large, the interest is diluted, so it is not as obvious."

Eric Boullier, the team principal at Renault, acknowledged that China is proving a hard market to break into, but pointed towards Russia, the home of Vitaly Petrov, his lead driver, as an example of how the relationship between racetrack and race driver can work the other way.

"If you look at the example of China," Boullier said, "it is struggling to develop motor racing interest and culture, whereas the opposite is happening now in Russia.

"They don't have their race yet, but because they have a driver in Formula One the interest is there. You need both and they come together."

There has been an influx of Russian sponsors for the sport since Petrov joined the field in 2010, including Marussia, the title-sponsor of Virgin Racing. The country announced late last year it will host its inaugural race in 2014 on the coast of the Black Sea.

"These things take time and they come in stages, but they always come hand in hand," Tung said. "Vitaly has been a Formula One driver for two years now and we are going to have a race in Sochi in three years' time. A local driver undoubtedly contributes to the popularity of motorsport in the country."

The UAE's wheels are in motion to nurture its native talent. With the inauguration of the Yas Marina Kartzone last November, there are now three major karting schools where young drivers can cut their teeth.

Naturally, such evolution takes time, but there are already local names fighting for recognition in more advanced series.

Humaid Al Masaood won the seventh round of the American LeMans Series in Maryland with his UAE-based Oryx Racing team over the weekend. Khaled Al Qubaisi has been competing in the Porsche Supercup for two seasons, and Saeed Al Muhairi, a 24-year-old instructor at Yas, is competing in the UAE GT Championship.

Inevitably, a race that has a local hero is also more popular, as is regularly proven at the British and German grands prix. Three Britons were on the grid for last month's race at Silverstone and the result was record attendances across the weekend and a charged atmosphere.

Daniel Ricciardo, an Australian rookie with Hispania, took part in Friday practice at his home race in Melbourne this year, but he made his racing debut at Silverstone.

"Having a local driver is very important, but having a home race is equally vital" he said. "At Silverstone, on the drivers' parade, seeing all the Union Jacks for Jenson [Button] and Lewis [Hamilton] and Paul [Di Resta], the support was awesome. Every driver should feel that in their home country. I feel privileged to have that in Australia and hopefully next year I'll have the real deal and be on that track parade and see all the Aussie flags."

In contrast, France, a country once renowned for producing a plethora of drivers, slipped off the calendar in 2008 and now has no drivers in the sport.

"It is a consequence," said Boullier, a Frenchman. "There are no French drivers and that is why there is no grand prix. This is why if you have a driver back in F1 - and a successful one - then automatically the media and sponsors will get interested in F1 again and then you will get a race.

"Abu Dhabi is a an exception because it is very successful for many reasons and is a very strong platform in the Middle East."

For now exceptional will suffice, but the unconcealed ambition remains. And Boullier understands why. "If they had a local driver, that would be crazy."