x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

‘Little Alonso’ is painting town red with his drive to succeed in F1

A supportive family and infrastructure in place, a future in Formula One is a dream in waiting for Ferrari fan Rashid, all of just five years.

Rashid Al Dhaheri has started competing with kart drivers nearly double his age. Photos by Delores Johnson / The National
Rashid Al Dhaheri has started competing with kart drivers nearly double his age. Photos by Delores Johnson / The National

November 2011, Yas Marina Circuit. It is the day before the third edition of the Formula One Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

The young Emirati boy is enjoying the pit walk with his father when he comes across the team station of his beloved Ferarri.

For the next few hours he is mesmerised. By the noise, by the colour. That brilliant red colour.

“I want to become a Formula One driver with Ferrari and win races for the UAE,” he tells his father as they drive home that day. “I want to be the next Fernando Alonso.”

Meet Rashid Al Dhaheri.

He is five years old. And maybe, just maybe, the youngster who may someday be the first Emirati to compete in F1.

The Abu Dhabi GP returns on Sunday, and with it the annual questions of when the UAE will have its own driver to grace Yas Marina Circuit.

It does not seem imminent.

But a prodigy may be in the making. The son of Ali Al Dhaheri, a senior executive at Adnoc, Rashid was only three when he caught the racing bug.

He may have been smitten with F1 that day at Yas two years ago, but Rashid’s love affair with cars started even earlier.

He would turn on his father’s Ferraris while sitting in his lap; the sound of the engine was music to his ears. Now, he can identify any Ferrari model by the noise it makes. A good start for the boy with dreams of becoming the next Alonso.

He rarely misses a race. While other kids play with toys, Rashid’s kindergarten days are spent worrying where Ferrari have finished on the grid.

“He loves his show-and-tell days because it always revolves around karting and F1 racing,” said Ann Godley, Rashid’s teacher at Gems American Academy in Abu Dhabi. “The kids are fascinated when he brings in his pictures, helmet, suit or other memorabilia.”

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Rashid’s parents are keen to ensure that his education is not compromised by his love of racing. So far, the two have dovetailed perfectly. For the past two years, Rashid’s life has been one sweeping blur of red.

Of Ferrari red, to be precise.

Bedroom posters, school paintings, birthday parties. The theme remains the same.

After his second visit to Yas in November 2012, at the grand old age of four, Al Dhaheri knew what the next step for his son was.

Kart racing, the birthplace of champions.

F1 legends such as Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Michael Schumacher; recent winners like Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton; current world champion Sebastian Vettel; and Fernando Alonso, all used karting as a first stepping stone on the path to greatness.

To follow in those footsteps, Al Dhaheri is ensuring that his son gets the best possible motor-racing education available.

“There are three main factors,” he says. “He needs to love what he’s doing, have the parents be committed, and be placed in the right environment.”

In January, Rashid’s precocious talent found that natural environment at Al Ain Raceway International Circuit, one of the country’s premier karting venues, where he was granted a licence to start racing competitively.

It has been, considering his age, a short ride so far, and he is loving every minute.

He wears a customised Ferrari uniform and helmet and accessories, and the kart has been adjusted so that his short legs can reach the pedals.

Local drivers and fans sometimes call him “Little Alonso”.

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Paul Chatenay, Rashid’s racing instructor, believes it is the boy’s willingness to learn that has led to his rapid progress.

“Rashid started racing in February, and I’ve been training him since May,” the Frenchman said. “He’s only five so whatever you teach him is instantly printed in his mind. He has improved drastically over the last six months.”

Word of his talent is spreading, too. Rashid spent July and August in Italy, training and racing against children older than he is.

His attitude has endeared him to his rivals. One evocative photo captures him, in his Ferrari helmet, shaking hands with his Italian training partner, in a Red Bull No 1 kart; the pose was uncannily recreated two months later by Alonso and Vettel at the end of the Italian GP. It is never too early to do it like the greats do.

While in Italy, a thrilled Rashid visited Ferrari’s base in Maranello, and he was received by Luca Baldisserri, the manager of the Ferrari Driving Academy. He could barely keep the grin off his face.

Behind the smile, however, is a determination to return to what he sees as his spiritual home one day.

Starting as young as he has may improve Rashid’s chances of living the dream. “Kids like Rashid must be nurtured from an early age,” his father says. “By the early teens, it is far too late.”

Rashid does not need to leave the country to take advantage of some local racing opportunities.

In the Yas Marina Circuit and the Dubai Autodrome, the country has two of the best tracks in the region. And with Mohammed ben Sulayem, the UAE racing legend and FIA vice-president working to raise the profile of motor sports, the facilities, and the money, for development increasingly are available.

Already, Rashid has displayed reactions on the roads that belie his tender years.

His father tells a story of a race in which Rashid, closing in on an older, more-experienced driver, had the presence of mind to brake when he noticed that his rival’s car had started to skid.

After the race, the parents of his Italian opponent made a point of thanking Rashid for showing maturity and restraint in not attempting to overtake, a move that could easily have resulted in an accident.

“I was not sure which way the car would drift, so I waited,” Rashid explained, showing an early understanding for the physics of racing.

The coming years should see a step up in the development of Little Alonso.

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On October 4, Rashid became the youngest participant at the start of the 2013 karting season at Al Ain Raceway, which earned him the first prize.

Under the watchful eye of Chatenay, he is now prepared to complete the entire series of eight rounds (16 races) that will take place during the next six months.

“I admit I was initially a little scared to teach a five year old,” Chatenay says.

“But he’s very dedicated to the sport, always listens and ready to get on the track at any time.”

On Saturday, Rashid took part in his second race event at Dubai Kartdrome and once again excelled. He twice finished third – and on the podium – in the Bambino class, despite racing against children older than him, and who are in their second season.

“Keep in mind, this is his first season and only second race,” Chatenay says. “He’s the youngest in his category; remember that an eight year old is almost double the age of Rashid and much stronger, physically.”

Rashid looks very much at home among older company, on and off the track. His sister Alya, who turns seven next month, is one of his biggest fans. Other children wave at him and encourage him.

“Good luck, Alonso,” one says. Rashid responds with a thumbs-up.

He is restless but cool and thoughtful, on the track.

Before a recent race, his father quizzed him. “Is it better to be the first or last to brake?”

“Last,” Rashid says.

“What about the gas, first or last?”

“First,” Rashid says.

“Full gas, no break,” the boy in red says, the words that have become his motto. They are even inscribed on his steering wheel to inspire him during his drives. On the track, Rashid is, in his No 3 kart (Alonso’s number), an inspiring sight. Watching him taking tight corners, head tucked in between his slender shoulders, it is hard to believe he is only five.

Rashid has three major targets in his sights: join the Ferrari Academy in Italy; drive for Ferrari; become the first Emirati to compete in F1 – and be a champion.

As for the short-term ambition? That is easy; to meet his hero, the one and only Fernando Alonso, at the 2013 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. “If I meet him I’ll tell him good luck, I hope you win,” Rashid says with a twinkle.

It would be his first goal, fulfilled – decked all in red, of course.

akhaled@thenational.ae

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