x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Realising a driving ambition

Saif al Assam's hopes of being a Formula One driver were dashed after a collision but now he has returned to Abu Dhabi to chase his dream.

The Emirati racing driver Saif al Assam with his road car, an Audi R8. He hopes to compete at Le Mans in two or three years.
The Emirati racing driver Saif al Assam with his road car, an Audi R8. He hopes to compete at Le Mans in two or three years.

Six years after a crash, Saif al Assam has returned to Abu Dhabi to chase his dream - and the pack - once again. r Six years ago, Saif al Assam was lying in a hospital bed, his right hip shattered by a high-speed racing car crash at the Donington Park track in England.

The only driver from the Formula Three series in which he was competing who visited him in hospital was Nelson Piquet Jr, son of the three-time Formula One world champion. Piquet Jr went on to reach the highest echelons of motorsport, driving for the Renault F1 team for a season and a half - until his recent high-profile departure - but for Mr al Assam the Grand Prix dream was over before it had begun.

His parents, who had helped to finance his driving ambitions until then, decided they could no longer bankroll their son in such a dangerous sport. Mr al Assam hung up his crash helmet and concentrated on his engineering studies at the University of Cambridge, where he went on to complete bachelor's and master's degrees, then forged a successful career in finance in Britain and the United States. Fast-forward to 2009, and the 29-year-old Emirati is back living in Abu Dhabi, where he was born and brought up, and is preparing to put on his racing suit, boots, gloves and helmet again for his first full season behind the wheel since the Donington crash. This time he has found others outside his family to share the cost: his Falcon Racing team has secured several sponsors, including the Abu Dhabi Energy Company (TAQA), Finance House, Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank, the insurance company Mepa, Etoile Group, Bead Architects and Engineers and ESR Group, the consultancy. He plans to compete in the UAE GT Championship saloon car series at Dubai Autodrome with Falcon Racing, which is also entering two other Abu Dhabi drivers, Khalid al Qubaisi and Ibrahim Salloum.

"We'll be right in the thick of things at the top of the class," he said. "Maybe not going for wins at the start of the season, maybe podiums. "This is preparation for the next season when we'll hopefully go for the championship and enter some international races. We need to start practising and testing." Mr al Assam has a high-octane history that dates back to when he was 12 years old. He raced motocross off-road motorbikes, karts and jet-skis, even securing podium finishes in the jet ski world championship races.

When he was 17, his father, who runs an architectural business and had been paying for his adventures, told him his hobbies were becoming too expensive - and he would have to choose just one of them. The draw of eventually entering F1 was so powerful that Mr al Assam dropped motocross and jet-skis and concentrated on motor racing. He raced in North America and finished third in a championship for the small Formula Ford single-seaters before securing fifth place in a series for the larger Formula 2000 cars.

"People were getting excited," he said. "People were saying, 'Could this guy be the first Arab driver in Formula One?' "My agent wanted me to stay in North America. I wanted to go to Formula One so I fired my agent, which was a mistake, because he was excellent." Mr al Assam became the first Arab to compete in the British Formula Three championship, a couple of rungs down from Formula One, but it was tough going on the track and sponsorship was hard to come by.

"I was a step ahead of people like Lewis Hamilton [the British current F1 world champion]," he said. "At Silverstone, I would be testing my Formula Three car and he would be testing his Formula Renault car. I would look down on him. "But the level of competition was very high. You were scrabbling for tenths of a second in the top 15." He ended the year 17th out of 35 drivers, a disappointment to his sponsors, who pulled out.

Nevertheless, and thanks to financial support from his father, Mr al Assam persisted with Formula Three in 2003, hoping that after two or three years it would act as a springboard to Formula One. Instead the Grand Prix dream died in a pile of mangled metal. "Things were going relatively well," he said of that fateful season. "I was getting regular top 10 finishes, sometimes coming sixth or seventh. I was building up my knowledge of the tracks.

"Then I had the crash. It took me almost a year to get over it," he said of the rehabilitation that followed the accident. "Even now I don't have full mobility in this leg." While he may have put motorsport on the back burner for several years after the crash, his love of racing remained. And now that his success in private equity means he can partly fund himself, he is getting back into racing in earnest.

He recently took part in some one-off events and is preparing for the inaugural UAE GT Championship in a 420bhp Porsche 911. "I don't care about the speed - it's the competition I enjoy," he said. "It's about catching someone, reeling them in, passing them, keeping them behind you. "When I came back [to live in the UAE], there was a nicely developing racing scene and I have slowly dipped back into the bath tub."

In about two to three years' time, he hopes to be able to compete with his teammates in the prestigious 24-hour race at Le Mans in France. "We hope to the be the first Arab team in the Le Mans and the first Abu Dhabi team. That's our aspiration," said Mr al Assam, who currently drives a high-performance Audi R8 on the road, although he admits to changing his car every few months. While he may have many years ahead of him racing sports cars, he still wonders what he might have achieved in F1 if things had gone differently earlier in his career.

As well as having the bad luck to have injured himself badly, he did not benefit from the level of support that young drivers in the country are more able to secure now. The Bahrain Grand Prix, the creation of Dubai Autodrome and the forthcoming Abu Dhabi Grand Prix have given motorsport a higher profile in the Gulf - and that can translate into increased sponsorship opportunities for young competitors.

"You always ask yourself," he said. "I ask myself what would've happened had I had the whole infrastructure and support a lot of the guys have. "Look at Lewis Hamilton -McLaren paid for him from karts to Formula One. He was always in the best teams. Talent is there, but some people benefit from the right nurturing. "But I'm happy with my life. I've done well. I'm lucky to still be able to get these competitive juices flowing."

dbardsley@thenational.ae