x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

A fast track to success for Porsche GT3 driver

Young Kuwaiti Zaid Ashkanani speaks to Osman Samiuddin about his plans to keep on winning.

Zaid Ashkanani of Kuwait has jumped straight from karting to Porsche GT3 and will compete in Abu Dhabi this weekend.
Zaid Ashkanani of Kuwait has jumped straight from karting to Porsche GT3 and will compete in Abu Dhabi this weekend.

It is not difficult to be convinced of the traces of prodigy.

There are plenty of acknowledged signs: diffidence, chronic inarticulateness, unnatural focus, an inability to understand what the surrounding fuss is for, ordinariness in other spheres of life. And there is something else.

About 15 minutes before the afternoon test session at Yas Marina Circuit yesterday, Zaid Ashkanani was already down by the track before all the other drivers, hovering alone around his car, eager to just be in his car and out there, alone and apart.

The Kuwaiti is 18 and could happily pass off for younger. And it was in this brief, private and unguarded moment that all the talk of prodigy felt truest. He may not be, he may not go on to be, but boy did he look and feel the part just then.

Zaid will be racing this weekend in the Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge Middle East as the series arrives in the UAE; having opened in Bahrain, the challenge takes in Abu Dhabi this weekend and Dubai the next. In his first race in Bahrain he qualified fourth-fastest and finished fifth and sixth in the two rounds. Quite suddenly and unexpectedly, he is a big deal.

It probably helped that Zaid has been around fancy fast cars most of his life. "When he was 13 he used to drive my Ferrari," says his father Abdulmajeed, who runs one of the oldest companies in Kuwait and has a handy collection of Porsches and Ferraris at home.

His father - another must-have prodigy accessory by the way - is a forthcoming, funny man and also fond of racing, and is the reason why Zaid is here.

Zaid had been karting since he was 10, but a trip to the Bahrain International Circuit paved the way for a steep progression.

"I used to go to practice for myself to the circuit," says Abdulmajeed. "All through my practices Zaid was sitting next to me in the car. One day there was a school holiday and it was an open track. Zaid came with me and when we reached the circuit in the morning, registering to drive, I told them to write Zaid's name in and said to him, 'Now is your time to drive.'"

Father sat next to son who drove the full day.

"The next day there was a time trial," continues his father. "So in the morning I again said 'Write Zaid's name' and they were shocked. But that day he raced and he won!"

Essentially, and remarkably, Zaid has jumped straight from karting to Porsche GT3, picking up an FIA racing licence along the way at 16 years old. That was two years before he got his normal Kuwaiti driving licence. The day he got it, he went around town looking for a car with a manual gearbox to buy.

He is reluctant to name the car he bought though, insisting "you'll be shocked." After a little pushing, he reveals it is a Nissan Patrol, which is not the kind of thing 18 year olds generally are embarrassed about.

Otherwise, Zaid is a pretty convincing teenager, awkward in conversation generally and just painfully shy. Asked what he loves most about racing, he is perplexed by the question, as if unsure the question should even be deemed necessary. He giggles and says, "I just love it."

Though it is his impetus, Abdulmajeed admits to extreme nerves watching Zaid race, especially in this GT3 challenge. Sometimes he does not watch at all.

"The mother?" he says, incredulously. "No, no, she can't see him either. No, no … but after the race she is happy. She and all his sisters are proud of him. But after the race. Before the race, no, during the race they cannot watch. After it, I keep sending them news of what he has done, they are happy."

The plans are as grand as they are obvious. "I want to get into single-seaters," says Zaid simply. "I want to get into Formula One."

Cautioning against such youthful ambition so soon seems inappropriate and needlessly cynical - and just old - for the moment, especially as he has emerged so swiftly. The plan was to race only in Bahrain this season, but so impressive was Zaid's debut, they are on for the whole series now.

Also, Abdulmajeed is just an irrepressible optimist.

"He is planning for F1 but he has to go through stages, F3 first and so on," he said. "He's already jumped many steps to get here. And the last race in Bahrain, he will win. You can tell everybody that."