x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Khaled Al Qubaisi first Emirati to compete at 24 Hours of Le Mans

Racer 'honoured' after being selected to drive in the race that is due to be held over the weekend of June 22-23.

Khalid Al Qubaisi is charting new territory. Courtesy Dubai Autodrome
Khalid Al Qubaisi is charting new territory. Courtesy Dubai Autodrome

Abu Dhabi // Usually, Khaled Al Qubaisi and Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal are to be found competing against each other. The pair are good friends, but have enjoyed an intense rivalry in the Dunlop 24 Hours of Dubai, and the Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge Middle East in recent years.

But starting on June 22, the pair will  share the same car in what promises to be a landmark moment for motor sport in the region.

Al Qubaisi will become the first Emirati to take part in the toughest, most prestigious rally in GT racing, the 24 Hours of Le Mans.  Saudi Arabia’s Al Faisal is, by comparison, a veteran, having raced in Le Mans for the last two years.

The pair, partnered by the Italian Andrea Bertolini, will become the first Arabian Gulf team to take part in the rally when they step into their Dunlop Ferrari 458 in the GTE Pro class, a team sponsored by Emirates Aluminium (EMAL) and Abu Dhabi Racing.

Al Qubaisi has been a winner in Dubai for the last two years, and it was during this event that he and Al Faisal first discussed the possibility of teaming up at Le Mans.

“I’ve been dreaming of participating in Le Mans since 2011,” Al Qubaisi said at the introduction of the team at Yas Marina Circuit yesterday.

“That was a target for me. We weren’t able to participate and enter the race that year, as it’s not an easy process to get into the race. In 2012, I didn’t make a big attempt. But for 2013, I remember Abdulaziz, after last year’s Le Mans, I called him just to make sure he’s fine and I told him, ‘Don’t worry, next year we will do it together and we will win it together’.”

From inception to fruition took “two to three months” according to Al Faisal, who will be making his third appearance at Le Mans, this time hoping for an improvement: he failed to finish the admittedly gruelling rally both years.

The target is understandably a modest one. The pair will consider it a victory of sorts to just complete what is acknowledged as the world’s toughest endurance race, among 60 other cars and now in its 90th edition, at the Circuit de la Sarthe in France.

The pair had a test run last Sunday and are due for two more practices before the race. Al Qubaisi admitted it was a tough initiation, but his partner had some handy advice.

“It is very difficult to go to a racetrack you don’t know with circumstances that you don’t know about so I told him to take it easy, let it all sink in,” Al Faisal said.

“It was the same for me the first time I was there and I went out of the pit and thought, what am I doing here?

“But it’s like anything new you do - you get used to the scene, the atmosphere and then you start getting used to doing what you do, which is driving the car.

“And then a track is a track, like any other track you can tackle. To take it step by step is the key.

“Le Mans has very high speeds and one of the most difficult corners, and if you make a mistake, it is very costly. So you have to build it up very slowly and take your time to do the best you can do.”

The pair hope their teaming up paves the way for more participation at the highest levels of motorsport.

“It is such an honour and a privilege,” Al Qubaisi said. “I can’t tell you how privileged I feel to be the first Emirati, and hopefully I will not be the last.

“The most important thing is that this sets a trend that we can be at the top races and that we can participate.

“It’s not way up, so high in the clouds that we can’t. We can, when there is intent and support and capability, then we can do it.”

Bertolini is a more than a handy complement. He is currently an F1 test driver for Ferrari with considerable experience in GT racing. His knowledge of the car, and his position as an official driver of British-based race specialists JMW Motorsport, who are running the Ferrari at Le Mans, also add pedigree to the team.

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

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