x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Yas officials search for potential Emirati F1 driver

Officials at the Yas Marina Circuit believe a local competitor can make it onto the Grand Prix starting grid by 2020.

Saif al Assam reached Formula Three but his Grand Prix dreams were dashed after he met with an accident.
Saif al Assam reached Formula Three but his Grand Prix dreams were dashed after he met with an accident.

ABU DHABI // An Emirati driver taking on the world's best in Formula One racing - such ambition may seem lofty, but it is what the people who run Yas Marina Circuit aim to achieve before 2020. "We believe that we can have an Emirati driver in Formula One within 10 years," Richard Cregan, the chief executive officer of the circuit, said yesterday. "The [Abu Dhabi] Grand Prix was obviously a huge success, but imagine if there was an Emirati driver in Formula One." Mr Cregan believes that the 10-year target to develop the UAE's first driver to break through to the upper echelon of motorsport can be met, in part, through the establishment of a driving academy and a panel of experts to rate young drivers. "I would hope that by this time next year we would have identified a group of young drivers that we would be looking to take forward," he said. Saif al Assam, 29, the Emirati who reached Formula Three, two rungs below Formula One, before a crash ended his Grand Prix ambitions, said "a complete step-by-step" system to help drivers progress through the ranks was vital. "You need to source these kids from eight to 10 [years old]," he said. "They need to be in karts for at least six years before they graduate to the next step." Parents would have to accept their children racing abroad from a young age because Europe was where the most competitive championships were based, said Mr al Assam, who raced there for several years. "Out of the 10 drivers you support, maybe only one will be good enough for Formula 1. It's not easy to find that nugget of gold." Bringing the GP2 Asia Series, the feeder series to Formula 1, to Yas this weekend is part of the circuit's plan to build a motorsport culture. Yas's racing academy, led by Gerd Pfeiffer, the former test team manager at the now defunct Toyota F1 team, is expected to open by the end of March. Cars including Porsches and Aston Martins, as well as open-wheel racers, will be introduced. Mr Cregan said it would take about a year to launch a proper development programme. Future racers can be identified from some existing competitions in the UAE, but many are spotted at a young age while competing in go-karts. Lewis Hamilton, the 2008 Formula One world champion, learned his craft in go-karts and GP2. Kamui Kobayashi, the BMW Sauber Formula One driver, who made the Toyota team when Mr Cregan was team manager, was spotted karting in Japan when he was 12. Jules Bianchi, a GP2 driver with the ART Grand Prix team, said he started karting "for fun" at the age of three. Yas Marina's go-kart track is planned to open by the end of the year. Only a few reach the top level. "You have to develop a sense of responsibility toward those kids that you are taking into your programme," said Mr Cregan. "You have to think about their education, about all of the things they would normally do if they weren't racing, because the racing career may not work." To ensure there are enough good drivers to choose from, awareness of motorsport must be increased at schools, according to Mohammad al Falasi, 27, who is competing today and tomorrow in the Chevrolet Supercars Middle East Championship, a support race to GP2. Al Falasi has himself visited schools, giving children the chance to ask questions and sit in a racing car. "There should be a lot of educational programmes in schools so [children] have an interest in motorsport," he said. Khalid al Mutawaa, 25, who raced in Europe as part of a programme run by Dubai Autodrome, said it had been difficult for young Emiratis to compete against the best drivers overseas as they lacked experience. "I see a huge talent in the region but it needs to be picked up and noticed while the youngsters are still young," he said. Mr Cregan said the circuit was working with the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE to develop a strategy for identifying young drivers. It would also look to work with the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority and other tracks, such as Dubai Autodrome and Al Ain Raceway. The plan encompassed having competitors in all forms of motorsport, he said. "We want to provide a bedrock of young talent that we can help into the various levels," said Mr Cregan. mchung@thenational.ae dbardsley@thenational.ae