x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Racing prodigy Ghanem is driving a hard bargain on track

The Lebanese driver has dominated in his debut year on the UAE scene, finding stability after funding almost stalled his career.

Ghanem won the UAE GTC Championship with one round to spare, notching up four second places and a win.
Ghanem won the UAE GTC Championship with one round to spare, notching up four second places and a win.

If Joe Ghanem does make it to the top echelons of motorsport then he will have done it the hard way.

The Lebanese driver looked destined for a distinguished driving career when he announced his potential by winning the 2004 Lebanese Junior Karting Championship at the age of 14. At that point he had just one season of karting under his belt.

Two years later he progressed to finish third in the Middle East Thunder Arabia Series (Zip Formula 1.6), collecting six podium finishes, four fastest laps and one pole position. His precocious talent was recognised by Red Bull, who invited him to test for their junior team in Portugal, making him the first driver from the Middle East to receive an invite.

Things were looking promising for the Lebanese driver as he continued his upwards curve, but what looked like a sure career hit the buffers when funds required to move to the next level dried up.

He had just been selected to be part of the A1 Team Lebanon driver development programme, and competed in several races in Formula Renault across Europe, in preparation for a full season in 2008. It was quite a blow.

Reluctantly, he returned home to Beirut and was confined to racing there and in select Formula 3 races in the UK. He did not let his standards or his motivation drop, however, winning on his Hill Climb event debut and finishing fourth in his first rally. Suddenly, the outlook started to look more promising.

"I was able to return to single seater racing in mid 2009 thanks to secured funding," Ghanem, 21, said. "I spent a few months testing Formula 3 cars across European circuits before taking part in the last two rounds of the Formula 3 UK series - National Class with Carlin Motorsports scoring three podiums in four races."

By now, Ghanem was becoming a pioneer for motorsport in the Middle East.

"On 13 September, 2009 I became the first Lebanese to stand on a podium in single-seater racing," Ghanem said.

But, yet again, money became an issue.

"Again, funding dictated my progress in single seaters and in 2010 I was not able to secure a full budget to continue my F3 campaign so I took part in a few rallies in Lebanon and Jordan scoring a few podiums along the way," Ghanem said.

In a bid to change his fortunes, and broaden his horizons, Ghanem moved to the UAE racing scene last year.

"I shifted my racing to the UAE since it was the only place in the region where track racing was established and joined GulfSport for the 2010/2011 UAE GT Series," Ghanem said.

He has not looked back since. The help and support of Sheikh Faisal Al Qassimi, the chairman of Dubai Autodrome who has helped secure sponsorship, has been crucial.

With the confidence boosting support, he won the UAE GT Drivers Championship (Class GTC) in a GulfSport Racing prepared Ginetta G50 HC with one round to spare.

During the eight round mini-endurance series that took place at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi and the Dubai Autodrome, Ghanem notched up four second places and a win.

Under his guidance, the car ran faultlessly all season against serious competition including two factory Maserati GranTurismo Trofeos, a KTM X-Bow GT4, Porsche 996, Lotus 2-Eleven GT4, two Aston Martin GT4s, a Seat Supercopra, and another Ginetta G50HC.

"This was a very satisfying win for GulfSport and Ginetta," Barry Hope, the Team GulfSport principal, said. "Joe is a very talented young single seater driver who wanted to test himself in competitive GT racing."

Ghanem was pitched in the biggest field in the UAE's premier road racing series and against some of the toughest and most experienced competitors. It wasn't all plain sailing, though.

"Downers were a first corner crash in Round 5 and the wrong car set up for Yas Marina Circuit in Round 4," Ghanem said. "But I finished second in my first ever GT race followed by two consecutive podiums.

"There was also pole position in Round 3 and almost winning the race.

"Then, of course, winning Round 7 and taking the championship in the final round."

His performance in Round 7 was a particular highlight, according to Paul Velasco, the communications manager at Dubai Autodrome.

"His win in Round 7 was one of the most popular last season, and he has quickly became a popular figure in the paddock," Velasco said.

"Joe burst on to the local scene as a breath of fresh air. He's young, fast and with a strong support network.

"In the Cytech UAE GTC Class he was contesting the most competitive class in local racing, but was immediately among the front-runners which is a tribute to his karting background and seat time in single seaters abroad.

"Definitely a youngster to watch for the future who will go far provided he gets the right financial backing in future."

In the short term, Ghanem will compete in the Formula Gulf 1000 and co-pilot in the Middle East Maserati MC Trofeo Cup, but he is setting his sights higher.

"My aim is to reach and win at the highest levels of motorsport to fulfil my talent," Ghanem said.

* Compiled with agency