x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

24 Hours of Le Mans: All in a day's work for Al Qubaisi and Co

Unlike his teammates Al Faisal and Bertolini, the Emirati Al Qubaisi is a relative rookie, but ahead of motorsport's most gruelling race in France, the bond between the trio is clear to see, writes Ali Khaled.

From left,  Khaled Al Qubaisi, Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal and Andrea Bertolini
From left, Khaled Al Qubaisi, Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal and Andrea Bertolini

When he was eight years old, Khaled Al Qubaisi would sit behind the wheel of the family car and dream of the day he would become a driver himself. It's unlikely, however, he imagined he would become a professional race driver 25 years later.

Al Qubaisi's first professional race was in the Porsche Mobil 1 Supercup event at Yas Marina Circuit, in 2009. Barely four years later, he will today become the first Emirati to compete in motoring's ultimate endurance race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, in France.

Businessman. Race driver. Father of four. Al Qubaisi, now 37, has mastered the art of multi-tasking. But he will be supported at Le Mans today by teammates Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal of Saudi Arabia and Andrea Bertolini of Italy.

Breaking into racing was not easy for Al Qubaisi. Facilities were nearly nonexistent in the UAE when he was growing up. Opportunities for drivers were few. It was after he finished university that he once again picked up his interest in driving competitively.

"In the beginning, driving was just a hobby for me; I'd go karting with my friends," he says. "But when the Formula One Grand Prix came to Abu Dhabi, I wanted to be part of the growing motorsport scene."

Now, in Yas Marina Circuit and Dubai Autodrome, the UAE has the "two best circuits in the region", according to Al Qubaisi's teammate Al Faisal.

Al Qubaisi's break came when he finished ahead of Luca Badoer, an Italian with experience in Formula One, in a karting event in Abu Dhabi. Porsche asked him about becoming a GT driver. Since then, he has had success in the Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge Middle East, and won the Dubai 24 Hour this year and last.

Now, he is hours from his first Le Mans, and preparation for today's start are ticking along nicely.

"The first practice last week went really well," he said. "Don't forget that my teammates are very experienced. Personally, as it's my first time here, I'm very excited but also a little tense. This is the pinnacle of endurance racing. You're up against the best cars and best teams."

Luckily for Al Qubaisi and his teammates, they will have a strong team behind them when they compete in the GTE Pro class in the JMW Motorsport Ferrari 458 sponsored by Emirates Aluminium, Abu Dhabi Racing and Dunlop tyres.

Their technical team ensures that the cars are in prime condition but the drivers must ensure they are physically and mentally prepared, too.

"Two months before the race, we raise the intensity of training. It is vital that fitness levels are high," Al Qubaisi says. "At Le Mans there are only three drivers per team, unlike other 24-hour races where four are allowed."

The G-forces felt inside the car requires stamina as well as fitness. That means out goes heavy Middle Eastern meals and junk food. In comes pasta and healthy salads. And plenty of water. "Inside the car, you want the blood to flow to your head and not to be digesting your food," he says with a laugh.

There are no specific shift times, so each driver must be prepared to be in the car for up to two hours at a stretch.

"Basically, what we do is drive as long as the fuel tank can take us," Al Qubaisi says. "At Le Mans, one stint is around one hour and we might do double stints which means driving for two hours at a time before stopping and the other driver taking over. "If we do two hours, we'll rest for maybe four. On average each driver will drive about eight hours. It's a lot of driving, a lot of effort. You get tired and you get cramps if your body's not well prepared.

"The most important thing is to come up with a strategy before the race and stick to it, decide on a certain pace and try and maintain it. The prime target is to finish. And if we can finish in the top 10, that would be great, of course."

While the Emirati embarks on a journey of discovery, his Saudi colleague is on one of steady improvement. Al Faisal, 29, is making his third run at Le Mans, and he is looking to avoid last season's non-finish.

"The most important thing is ensure you don't run into technical problems," he says. "Last year, we had two punctured tyres and fuel problems in the first few hours. We lost a lot of time and dropped to last after we had qualified in second place."

He said understanding a car's limits is vital.

"You need to slowly build up the pace so as not to damage the car. After that, confidence will flow. You need to keep a careful watch for the first 12 hours. After that the race settles down and you start to know which drivers are doing the fastest laps."

Al Faisal won the Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge Middle East Championships for the Saudi Falcons team in 2010 and 2012, and his experience will prove valuable over the next few days.

He is confident that his Emirati teammate will be unfazed by his first Le Mans.

"He won in the Dubai 24 Hour, and the physical preparation for Le Mans is the same, so he is ready," Al Faisal says. "He needs to learn the track, but that will come throughout the weekend."

Promoting motor racing in the region is a subject close to Al Faisal's heart. Speaking at the Abu Dhabi International Sports Exhibition, in April, Al Faisal called for an overhaul of the motoring industry, from the grass roots up.

Coordination between drivers, sponsors and the media is the only way forward, he says.

The team's involvement in Le Mans could reshape the motorsport landscape in the Gulf, he believes.

"If you look back 10 years, no one in the region knew much about Formula One, but that changed," he says, referring to the launch of the Bahrain Grand Prix in 2004 and the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in 2009.

"Until recently, no one had a clue about Le Mans, but now I am getting phone calls all the time from people who want to come to France to watch the race."

His family and friends may be there to cheer him on, but many people's knowledge of Le Mans comes from the classic 1971 Steve McQueen film of the same name; footage from the race dramatically captured what it is like to be a driver in the legendary race.

Al Faisal hopes his team's exploits have an equally dramatic effect on the viewing public back home. For now, F1 remains the king of the road, the model that the rest of the motoring categories aspire to emulate.

Bertolini, 39, has excelled across many of these categories. His record includes wins in the 2010 FIA GT1 World Championships and the 2011 International Superstars Series.

Le Mans is a horse of a different colour. "Completely different," he says.

"There are four tyres and a steering wheel, but that's it. Everything else is different … Like Khalid and Prince Abdulaziz said, the 24-hour races require special preparation."

Hearing the three drivers continuously referring to each other is an indication of the bond they have developed over the past few weeks. For Bertolini, communication, culture and experience will not be obstacles among the three drivers.

"It's no problem," he says. "I've worked with other 24-hour racing teams before and, like Khalid said, although we've been together only for the testing period, the feedback between all three has been good and we've had an immediate understanding."

Bertolini revealed another unique way in which the three bonded while settling on a strategy.

"We did a 24km run around the track, stopping at every corner to discuss the best lines to take," he says. "There's a really good atmosphere. Everything is in the right place."

It is left to the Italian to send a message to racing fans back in the UAE, and across the Gulf. "We need your best wishes," he says. "We'll do our best and we'll enjoy it."

At 6pm today, Le Mans awaits.

"A lot of people go through life doing things badly," Michael Delaney, McQueen's character in Le Mans, says. "Racing's important to men who do it well. When you're racing, it's life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting."

For Al Qubaisi, Al Faisal and Bertolini, the wait is almost over.