x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

The race to find an Emirati Formula One star

In all likelihood, a homegrown race hero will begin his racing career on a karting track.

Go-karters on the Al Ain Raceway take part in the UAE Rotax Max Challenge race last month.
Go-karters on the Al Ain Raceway take part in the UAE Rotax Max Challenge race last month.

The careers of most Formula One drivers, from Lewis Hamilton, a relative newcomer, to Michael Schumacher, the ageing veteran, are rooted in the same humble beginnings: go-karting, the sport's long-established learning ground, where drivers discover, hone and showcase their skills in front of potential employers.

It is also, in all likelihood, where the first Emirati Formula One driver - perhaps a youngster yet to contemplate his first double-digit birthday - will be found.

"If getting an Emirati driver into Formula One is the aim, then attention needs to be paid to karting," says Paul Velasco, the communications manager at Dubai Autodrome. "That's where it all starts."

Until recently, the only karting tracks in the UAE were at the Dubai Autodrome and Al Ain Raceway, but a new 800-metre track at Yas Marina Circuit is the first open-to-all karting facility within the capital's city limits.

That is a big step forward, say industry insiders. From track managers to the young drivers themselves, everyone seems to agree that local children need proper facilities and instruction to progress. Mohamed al Mutawaa, the UAE's hottest young national talent, is a case in point. "I only started two years ago and I wish I had started at five," says the 17-year-old House of Portier and TAM Auto Engineer driver. He is one of only three boys, from 700 Emirati applicants, who won a chance to compete in Europe. with the inaugural HSBC Racing Academy.

Velasco stresses the need for family involvement: "Motor racing at this level is a family affair; mothers make sandwiches and fathers help with the fine-tuning and technical aspects. It is all about showing support," he says. "Khandou ras have to get dirty - it's the only way."

Khalid al Qubaisi, 34, drives for Team Abu Dhabi in the Porsche Supercup, the F1 support series. He realises he started too late to become an F1 driver, but he hopes to help young drivers to attain what he could not.

"It's critical if we want to go anywhere in the sport that we have strategies and structures in place to build our young talents in stages," he says. "We need to focus our attention on kids as young as eight."

There are several genuine Emirati prospects - many of them Al Ain Raceway members - competing in various national championships, but almost all are over 20.

"Kids need to start at seven or eight and to do that we need to go round the schools and speak with parents; we must alter the idea of what karting is in the Emirati mindset," says Haytham Sultan Ali al Ali, 21.

Al Ain Raceway currently leads the charge in developing local talent, and the new Yas Island facility will only complement the UAE's karting and racing scene.

"Initially we will have an 'arrive and drive' scheme with an emphasis on attracting kids looking to have fun," says Stephen Umfreville, Yas Marina Circuit's commercial director. "It's about building a fan base at first. We want to attract as many people as possible and identify the serious prospects."

Guy Sheffield, Al Ain Raceway's general manager, believes inter-facility collaboration is the way to increase the pool of drivers.

"We're developing relationships with the people at Yas that go far beyond the usual corporate emphasis," Sheffield says. "We need to make karting as accessible as possible and, although general awareness is starting to creep in, we need to start identifying drivers at a reasonable age who can learn race craft - through karting - early in their careers."