You’ll spot him straight away, I was told. And they were right.
He was hard to miss. The tiny five-year-old in his red Ferrari jumpsuit was doing what any kid of his age does, skipping around the empty car park of Dubai Autodrome and kicking some rocks that happened to be in his way.
The young Emirati had some time to kill before his next big race.
This was November 2013, and Rashid Al Dhaheri was a wide-eyed kid with a dream of being just like his hero, Formula One legend Fernando Alonso.
“Hi Alonso,” the older karters would say when they passed him, and he’d shyly wave back at them.
And then it was time for his race. Within seconds, the boy nicknamed “Little Alonso” grew years. After surveying the break points of the track with his instructor he nodded, put on his oversized red helmet and went out to win yet another race against children several years his senior.
Fast forward six years, and Al Dhaheri is now an established karting champion, proudly carrying the UAE flag on podiums across Europe. The red uniform is gone and, at the tender age of 11, he’s very much his own man. It’s a maturity that was spotted after a win at the Italian EasyKart Championships in 2014.
“In Al Dhaheri, I saw a man of six years old,” says Giancarlo Minardi, the owner of the self-named F1 team from 1985 to 2001. “He was driving with such disarming command that I wanted to see him in settings unknown to him.” Soon, special dispensations were made for him to race in higher age categories.
Today Al Dhaheri racks up one win – or at least podium finish – after another, in fields of 30 or 40 of the best young karters in Europe. He speaks fluent English and Italian. And his dream of becoming the UAE’s first ever Formula 1 driver remains firmly on course.
But ask any motoring journalist in the region why there are no current Middle Eastern drivers making serious swerves on a big-name Formula 1 spot and you’ll likely elicit groans of despondency for your troubles. On the face of it, it seems a no-brainer. A region that could potentially handle the financial rigours of success better than most just needs willing vessels, right? But those vessels often get a little lost along the way – at least that’s the theory.
Watching Al Dhaheri and others, though, you feel a sense of shifting purpose. It starts with karting. And though not everyone who excels at karting goes on to become a champion, rarely does a driver become a champion without excelling at karting. The guy on this month’s cover, for example, Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher… they all mastered this category on their way to Formula 1 fame.
So, while the other kids played with toy cars, Al Dhaheri would race in a real one, slowly honing his technique, gradually shaving milliseconds off his lap time. School work was often completed on flights, while his parents ensured his grades were maintained. There’s actually a video of him aged seven, during a school holiday, practicing alone on a track in Italy in torrential rain. Yes, maybe his training is occasionally a chore, but largely this is out of passion, dedication and love.
There’s a message here for you, if you look hard enough. The motivations here aren’t fame and fortune, at least not primarily. Kids like Al Dhaheri do this because they love it. A slightly idealistic, but none the less beautiful message to take with you into 2020. Do something you love.
Meanwhile, back at the track, local drivers in the UAE couldn’t have a better choice of where they can hone skills of their own. Ask anyone in the know and they’ll tell you there are several world class tracks here. From Al Forsan International Kart Circuit and Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi, to Dubai Autodrome and, above all, Al Ain Raceway, the home of karting in the UAE.
“We thrive on nurturing young talent as early as five years old to develop their skills and interest in motor racing for the development of the sport,” says Antonio Kekati, the track’s Managing Director. “Professional driving may not be in the future for everyone, however the skills of karting teach the grassroots discipline of safe and respectful driving in sport and in life.”
In November 2007, Al Ain Raceway opened its doors to hosting the Rotax Grand Finals, an annual event considered to be the “Olympics of karting”, and it also now runs the annual UAE National Karting Championship.
It’s an all-inclusive environment open to all ages and backgrounds, and has produced two exceptional female Emirati drivers.
“Our series currently has four females participating across the classes,” says Kekati. “Amna and Hamda Al Qubaisi started their careers at the Al Ain Raceway in 2014, have represented the UAE at the annual Rotax Grand Finals and have most recently gone on to successful careers racing in F4, promoting female inclusion in motorsport.”
While Kekati is keen to highlight the opportunities it has given Emiratis, it has also offered career avenues for Arab and other expatriate youngsters.
At eight years old, Khaled Saab was a few years Al Dhaheri’s senior when he started racing there. Born and raised in Dubai to a Lebanese father and English mother, the now 14-year-old showed an immediate aptitude for the sport, which, after a podium finish in only his second race, quickly turned into an obsession.
“From his side I’m not sure he saw it as dedication or sacrifice,” says Saab’s mother, Kathy Edwards. “With him, it’s always ‘when can we go to the track?’ The mental side was the most difficult for him at first. Learning how to control his emotions when you lose, or when things out of your control go wrong – and in racing there can be a lot out of your control. He always had the natural talent, he just needed the mindset to fit.”
Again, this is a story of dedication. Saab’s parents bought him a simulator to practice on at home, and he has three gym sessions a week targeting stamina and conditioning. After that, he also goes to a personal trainer on the weekend to monitor his progress.
“We weren’t aware of how much work is involved with motorsports,” says Edwards. “It’s a huge commitment, but wonderful to see your child focussed on his goals.Learning to fail often and push until he wins is so valuable to his character.”
And in truth, that’s where the story lies. More than the podium finishes, more than future F1 superstars, this is about the journey not the finish line. At this point, these kids will do anything to become a professional driver, but if it doesn’t happen, the experience has shaped them like no other. They might well not become the next world champion, but this is about building character and instilling values in our future generations. You could argue that the world has never needed that more.
Ali Khaled is a Palestinian journalist based in the UAE