Khaled al Qubaisi, the only Emirati driver in the Porsche Supercup may be a late bloomer but he is gradually picking up speed in his career, writes Euan Megson.
From karting at age 8, Emirati driver graduates to Porsche Supercup
Having had his first behind-the-wheel experience at the tender age of eight, it is somewhat surprising to learn that Abu Dhabi's Khaled al Qubaisi had to wait another quarter of a century to take part in his first competitive race. "I was a boy when I first drove on my own, but that was on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, deep in the desert," al Qubaisi said from the plush corporate headquarters of Mubadala, where the softly spoken 34-year-old works as a senior adviser in the acquisitions division.
"I couldn't wait to get my licence and I tried to cheat to get my age higher, but that didn't work - I had to wait until I was 18 before I was able to drive freely." Even a 10-year delay for legal wheels did not dilute al Qubaisi's need for speed and, during the next 15 years, a natural karting ability came to the fore. However, the feeling of uncertainty about committing to motorsport as anything other than a casual pastime refused to budge.
"I've always liked driving and racing - I've done a lot of karting," al Qubaisi said. "I was quick and people always told me enter the local championships, but that wasn't my interest. I didn't see it going anywhere." Then, by chance, al Qubaisi found himself thrust into a one-off kart race with Luca Badoer, the F1 test driver for Scuderia Ferrari - the F1 stalwarts are sponsored by Mubadala - and the late Christophe Hissette, a multiple domestic karting champion.
Hissette, as rapid as he was gifted, won the race, but al Qubaisi shocked himself by beating Badoer into second place. From there, things quickly snowballed. "I had just dropped by," said the father of four. "But from that point on people's eyes were opened and I was encouraged to do something professional. "I met Richard Cregan [the chief executive of Abu Dhabi Motorsport Management, the company which operates Yas Marina Circuit] and we talked about the Supercup and its high-profile status as the support race for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
"I had never been in a race car, or a Porsche 911, which is a rear-engine and very different to driving a normal car, but Richard said: 'Don't worry, we'll get you in touch with the right people.' And that's how I started." The third driver for locally backed Team Abu Dhabi, al Qubaisi's unabated appetite for velocity is finally being put to good use - he is the only Emirati driver in the Porsche Supercup.
Steering the powerful two-seater GT might be a far cry from youthful adventures spent searching for pedals in and around Abu Dhabi's sand dunes, but al Qubaisi - a relative latecomer to professional motorsport - is intent on making up for lost time. "I had to go through so many steps just to qualify for that race in Abu Dhabi, I had to qualify within seven per cent of the fastest car - that's less than the qualification margin in F1," al Qubaisi said, referencing the seven-race education he required to line-up at Yas last year.
"I went and met the To Limit team [the German crew that operates Team Abu Dhabi's Porsche Supercup programme] to test my initial level. They said I had the basics and we identified development steps. "I had six races [in the German championship] and I progressed from finishing in the last third, to the middle third and then the top third." A hefty smash in the Carrera Supercup [a debut in the leading Porsche series in Germany was race No 7] failed to dampen al Qubaisi's enthusiasm, but when he returned from Europe, the money-conscious Manchester City fan faced a new challenge - raising financial support.
"I paid for [Germany] from my own pocket, but I needed funding for the Supercup race [at Yas] - it is an expensive series," said al Qubaisi, who, away from the track, drives an SUV to avoid the temptation of speeding on public roads. "I went around everywhere, but it was very hard to get support. I went to so many companies and, although I saw the value of an Abu Dhabi team with an Emirati driver, they were all reluctant."
Then, his luck changed. As the reality of faded dreams began to loom large in al Qubaisi's rear-view mirror, he discovered an equally ambitious partner. "I had nearly given up and my last stop was Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority," al Qubaisi said. "It was finalised as soon as I walked in. I didn't have to say anything, it was a done deal, they wanted two cars and even said they might do next season. "That prospect hadn't even entered my mind and I knew I had to up my game, so I participated in the Middle East GT Challenge [the regional Supercup series]."
The 12-race campaign primed al Qubaisi for a full Supercup season in Europe and, with just two races left in the current campaign, the man at the Team Abu Dhabi helm is impressed with the newcomer's development. "There should be a huge gap between the series leaders and Khaled because they have so much more previous experience of Supercar and other racing, but Khaled has already taken big, big steps," said Michael Seifert, the principal of Team Abu Dhabi.
"Considering he is so new to the sport and has only half a year's experience, he has done an amazing job. These guys are champions, they aren't rookies, and he's keeping up. Khaled has done far better than anyone anticipated and even the other drivers didn't expect him to be doing this well." Al Qubaisi, a dedicated husband and father, freely concedes that the hardest part of his gruelling competition programme is losing the free-time he has traditionally reserved for his family. This is the second year in succession that escapes from the UAE summer have had to be put aside.
"Usually we holiday in Europe during the summer," said al Qubaisi. "It is a nice, cool, central place to be and you can travel a lot between countries. The past four years we've been to France, Switzerland and Germany - I'd like to try new places out, but my driving has taken away from my time with my family. They have been very supportive though, my wife knows I am doing what I love and the children understand and like seeing their dad race. I like motorsport, so it is not too tough a sacrifice for me."
Al Qubaisi, one of 10 children himself, admitted that he is unsure whether any of his four children will follow in his footsteps. Surprisingly, he added, it is his eldest daughter that is showing the most promise. "My 10-year-old daughter is the one that takes after me," a smiling al Qubaisi said. "Amena is very strong and competitive and has been riding motorbikes since she was three years old. She loves to go karting and I'm happy about that.
"My six-year old son, Abdullah, he likes watching motorsport, but I don't know if he will be into it or not. "Hopefully Mohammed [the youngest, at one year old] will be the aggressive one. Amena is outstanding among the girls and has all the ability - whether it will be enough to compete with the boys, we will have to wait and see." However al Qubaisi, who prides himself on starting the day with a fruit salad - "the most important meal of the day," he insisted - will not harbour regrets if his children opt for careers away from the track. The Emirati is well aware of the dangers of professional motorsport.