x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Emirati woman's drive to succeed

Nahla Al Rostamani is one of the few female Emirati professionals in motorsports.

Ms Al Rostamani says her entry into the sport was not easy but people's reactions depend on their background and nationality.
Ms Al Rostamani says her entry into the sport was not easy but people's reactions depend on their background and nationality.

ABU DHABI // The most important item in Nahla Al Rostamani'spurse when she was 18 was the key to her Infiniti G35.

And even at that young age, Ms Al Rostamani says, her passion for motorsports had already been burning for six years.

When the time came to enrol for university she chose media studies at Dubai Women's College. But it wasn't long before she realised media was not her calling.

"So I chose my passion," Ms Al Rostamani says. "If you don't truly love what you're doing then your career becomes meaningless."

Today she is the chief timekeeper at the Yas Marina Circuit and says she has dreams to one day launch her own racing team.

Ms Al Rostamani's parents had no reservations about her decision to pursue motorsports. In fact, she says, they were exceptionally supportive.

"My family knew that this is what I truly wanted," she says. "My dad was raised and educated overseas so he was always very understanding and supportive.

"My uncle [who owns several car dealerships], thought I was crazy but I decided to do my own thing."

At 20, Ms Al Rostamani began karting at the Dubai Autodrome, and in 2005 she was nominated to join the Formula Ford training programme in Bahrain, where she was the only woman among 17 participants.

Three days later, Ms Al Rostamani returned to the UAE as one of the first Emirati female licensed racing car drivers.

But the young motorsports professional wanted to take to the tracks in more ways than one, so in 2007 she joined the Dubai Autodrome as a full-time employee.

From cleaning the tracks to prepping the cars of drivers before races, Ms Al Rostamani was willing to do it all. And her passion opened doors for her to meet racing stars such as the reigning Formula One world champion Sebastian Vettel.

"I was doing the timing for the Pirelli tyre testing last year and I was timing his tyres' performance," she says. "This is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job, meeting legends like him who recognise my work and appreciate what I do."

After timing more than 40 races over five years, Ms Al Rostamani became a certified race timekeeper - the first Emirati female to do so.

"It's not just about holding a stopwatch and pressing a button," she says. "It's a whole system. One error and the entire timing is thrown off."

One of her biggest achievements was timing a 24-hour endurance race where drivers work in relay.

Software was installed on her laptop that connected wirelessly to transponders in the car, she explains. But if a transponder fails to work, which happens often, the timekeeper must manually record the car number as it passes certain points.

Ms Al Rostamani says her entry into the sport was not easy but people's reactions depend on their background and nationality.

"Europeans, for example, were always very supportive," she says. "They were used to the idea because they have many women who work in the industry with them. They treated me like their little sister."

But Ms Al Rostamani says she struggles when dealing with people of her own nationality.

"They would tell me that motorsports is a man's world and it's not where I'm supposed to me; that [this field] is too aggressive and dangerous for women," she says.

Rather than give in to her compatriots' comments, she took their feedback as a challenge.

"I proved myself and what I was capable of. Now they have a newfound respect me, they are completely supportive of what I do," she says.

Ms Al Rostamani adds that any woman who chooses to pursue a career that is traditionally male must never compromise her femininity.

"Yes, I am an Emirati woman, but I can do so many things, things that not even men can do," she says. "It's about pushing the barrier and doing what you love no matter what people say."

Abdulhamid Al Awadhi, Ms Al Rostamani's mentor since her early days at the Dubai Autodrome, says her personality has brought her success.

"She's bright, open-minded, highly educated and an excellent team player," says Mr Al Awadhi, who is also the deputy chief marshal and motorsports instructor at the Automobile and Touring Club. "She's also very hard-working and a great listener."

Role models, particularly women, are key to helping the flourishing motorsports industry in the country, Mr Al Awadhi says.

"But in order for Nahla to promote her passion, she needs help," he says. "She has just one task - to look for Emirati women who can support her so she can bring her ideas to the Government.

"This will be difficult if she stands alone. If she can find a group who will stand beside her, which I'm sure she will, she can create an official place for women in the motorsports industry."

mismail@thenational.ae