x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Search is on to find the UAE's Fernando Alonso

Partly because of the popularity of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the ruling body of the sport here, and the Government have set a goal of an Emirati driver on the grid in 10 years. It's a tough task.

Humaid Al Masaood insists Emirati drivers must race in Europe to make it to an F1 team. Antonie Robertson / The National
Humaid Al Masaood insists Emirati drivers must race in Europe to make it to an F1 team. Antonie Robertson / The National

Formula One is the prestige circuit in the world for open-wheel racing. Partly because of the popularity of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the ruling body of the sport here, and the Government have set a goal of an Emirati driver on the grid in 10 years. It's a tough task.

This weekend, Abu Dhabi is focusing on Formula One - and the world is focusing on Abu Dhabi - as the cars are set to line up on the Yas Marina Circuit's grid.

F1 is the world's highest echelon of open-wheel racing, and has the celebrity, glitz and glamour to go with it.

With all of this exposure, it's only natural that the UAE is interested in cultivating a driver for the top tier, and the Government, along with Yas Marina and the Automobile Touring Club of the UAE, have plans to find and develop a local driver within the next 10 years.

Realistically, that's going to be a big challenge; with just 24 spots available on the grid, there is stiff competition for a seat.

And drivers who do make it have been competitively racing since they were children, starting off in serious karting at the ages of 7 or 8 in large racing markets such as Europe or South America. It's an initiative that will definitely take some time.

But away from F1, all around the world, Emiratis are already proving successful in various top-tier racing series, quietly climbing the motorsport ladder and winning races against some of the best drivers in their disciplines.

Humaid Al Masaood is just one Emirati who has found success on foreign race tracks. The Abu Dhabi-based businessman first started racing Radicals in the UAE and gradually worked his way up to the American Le Mans Series (ALMS), where he became the first Emirati to win a race in that sports car series last year. He has since moved over to Grand Am in the US, another sports car series that will merge with the ALMS in 2014.

"I feel good about being an Emirati out there, I'm proud," says Masaood. "People are generally quite interested in where I'm from; you see a lot of American flags and British flags on the cars, but when I see my flag, that's a good feeling.

"Everyone knows about the UAE, because of the Formula One, it's definitely well known. It's almost like they expect more people to be coming from there and racing."

And there are; most recently, Khalid Al Balooshi, who races in the Top Fuel dragster series in the US, won an event last week in just his 22nd race. Top Fuel is the highest level of drag racing, where competitors are in control of 8,000 horse-power cars that reach mind-boggling speeds of more than 525kph in less than four seconds. "I was looking at other drivers and thinking I've got the same car and I've got the ability, so there's no reason why I can't win," he said after his victory.

"I also needed that little bit of luck, and thankfully the opportunity finally came."

And just last month, in the FIA World Cup for cross-country rallies - again, the top tier in the discipline - Khalifa Al Mutaiwei secured the championship by winning the Pharaohs International Cross-Country Rally in Cairo, becoming the first Arab driver to win not just one, but two major international, non-regional, championships - his first title came in 2004.

He is also a regular competitor and winner of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, where he champions the same Mini-based offroader with which he won in Cairo.

Next year, Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi, who has already competed in the World Rally Championship, will return to that sport's highest level with the Citroen Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team, which was created to develop Emirati drivers as well as to promote the brand of Abu Dhabi on a world stage.

Previously, Al Qassimi raced for Ford in the WRC from 2007 until last year.

Off the track - in fact, off the land itself - Ahmed Al Hameli was leading the championship standings in the F1 international powerboat series this year until he was forced to retire for the season after being diagnosed with a brain tumour last month.

After surgery in the US, he is continuing treatment in Abu Dhabi and hopes to return to the sport next year.

Masaood - like every other driver - has worked hard to reach a high level of racing, starting his own journey by winning the UAE sports car championship in 2008/09. But beyond dedication and love for the sport, he highlights two things that every racer needs to reach the top of their disciplines: money and travel.

"It was having the funding to be able to move forward, and then be able to work with the right people. If you don't have the right experienced people and the right equipment, you'll end up with very poor results. I've seen different people who I know are good drivers, and one year they are phenomenal and then they switch teams and they're at the back of the pack.

"If you're going to be an F1 driver, the only way to do it is to go to Europe; you have to go that route. Then there's the commitment; it's a time commitment, a lot of travelling. It's a lot different than driving from Abu Dhabi to Dubai.

"Also, you're just pushing yourself more when you go abroad. If you stay in the UAE, you get comfortable, when you know the people here and you know the tracks.

"But when you go to a different country, it's very intimidating and challenging; there are a lot more people around, the grids are much bigger, and people seem much more serious. If you're in America, for example, you'd be driving against a lot of extremely good drivers, potentially some of the better drivers in the world. You have a very high standard of driving, and it makes you realise where you are and what you need to get better."

Away from the spotlight that shines on F1 and the largesse of ensuing driver-search programmes, racers in other, less glamorous disciplines struggle to pay the bills for their passion, which could add up to hundreds of thousands of dirhams in a single season. It's either pay with their own wallets or find someone who will put up the money, something that has been getting more difficult.

"There have been a few bumps with the economy in the last few years, it didn't allow people to get the sponsorship they needed," says Masaood, adding that it's had an effect on local racing with smaller grids in the past few years.

But grassroots racing has begun to pick up again in the UAE, with the Radical series, sports cars and the open-wheeled FG1000 series just starting the season, along with a drag racing championship held at Yas Marina that draws competitors from all across the Gulf.

However, the difficulties remain for those who love motorsport in a country with such a small population and short history of organised racing, even if we do boast two of the best race tracks in the world, making the achievements of those Emiratis in top-tier racing even more special.

"Of course, there are a lot of good events in the UAE, like the 24 Hours of Dubai [at the Dubai Autodrome] and the Yas 12 Hours [at Yas Marina Circuit] that attract a lot of international teams; that all points to the fact that motorsport is growing here," says Masaood.

"I feel there's a lot of interest; a lot of people talk about motorsport. But it's going to take a bit more time."