The head of Abu Dhabi Racing says fostering young, local talent in the world of rallying is a key part of the company’s vision for the future. Sheikh Khalid bin Faisal Al Qassimi, who has taken part in the World Rally Championship for the past nine years, is now focusing on bringing up a new generation of UAE talent to take the rally world by storm.[Not a valid template]
“It’s very important that we achieve our goals”, Al Qassimi explains to crankandpiston.com. Part of the partnership with Citroen is to be in the World Rally Championship and have our brand across the cars and facilities, but also to promote Abu Dhabi in the right way and help generate new Emirati talent and future champions. This is a big part of Abu Dhabi Racing’s program.”
The Middle East’s ever-growing involvement in the World Rally Championship during the past half-decade hasn’t escaped many people’s notice. Following Ford’s withdrawal of manufacturer support last year, sponsorship from Qatar allowed series stalwarts M-Sport – fresh off a five-year partnership with Abu Dhabi – to keep its doors open for the 2013 season and beyond. Similarly, newly formed Abu Dhabi Racing this year signed a five-year deal with WRC giant Citroen. Though the marque will scale back from a four-car to two-car assault on the series in 2014, the significance of two GCC nations headlining the biggest rally championship on the planet speaks volumes about the region’s commitment to motor racing.
At the head of Citroen’s assault (with a full driver line-up yet to be announced) is the UAE’s own Al Qassimi. He’s also ADR chairman, and the new WRC deal is apparently just the beginning. Though still in its infancy, ADR has already established a driver academy for budding go-kart drivers and an annual Young Drivers Selection, a program offering regional aspirants a rally seat for the FIA Middle East Rally Championship.
In a banner season for last year’s winners Mohamed Al Sahlawi and Mohamed Al Mutawaa (who only last year had a little known energy drink company singing his praises), both UAE locals made their WRC debuts, Al Sahlawi tackling Rally Spain and Al Mutawaa entering the preceding Rally Germany. Adding strength to the new initiative, Al Sahlawi went on to take both the 2013 junior Middle East Rally Championship and the 2WD drive crown. This year Mansoor Bel Helei, Juma Al Falasi, and Formula Gulf 1000 race winner Saeed Bintouq emerged victorious in ADR’s Young Drivers Selection, and will consequently contest the 2014 FIA Middle East Rally Championship in three Abu Dhabi Racing Citroen DS3s. For Al Qassimi, these are crucial steps for bolstering the emirate’s presence on the global stage as well as providing a base for future Emirati sportsmen and women.
“We want to lift the standard of the sport,” Al Qassimi explains. “But we want to show that we are also supporting young drivers. Last year we had a selection process and we have another three good drivers this year. This is the first time we are running a full program in the Middle East and we’re confident the Young Driver Selection gives them the first opportunity on their way to becoming future world champions.”
Key stakeholders in the new initiative include not only the Abu Dhabi Motorsport Management and Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority, but also the Yas Marina Circuit. Alongside Khalid Bin Shaiban, vice chairman of Motorsport Management, Al Qassimi and two-time Dubai 24 Hours winner Khalid Al Qubaisi make up the new company’s board of directors. Al Qubaisi in particular, who will contest the Dubai 24 Hours again in January, is a significant figurehead for ADR’s circuit racing aspirations further down the line. During the early days of development though, rallying remains at the forefront of ADR. Though still in the development stages, an Abu Dhabi Rally as early as 2015 is a strong possibility.
“We’re sticking with rallying to begin with because it’s one of my passions, it’s what we want and it’s one of the oldest sports in our country,” Al Qassimi explains. “We still have a few deals in place for circuit racing. Khaled Al Qubaisi will be driving in the upcoming Gulf 12 Hours and then the 24 Hours in Dubai. We are looking to do Le Mans next year also. So yeah, there’s plenty of options. We also plan to host our own event, which is the Abu Dhabi Rally. I don’t want to talk too much about that just yet but I think we can make it a five star rally.
“There’s another new program we’re going to announce soon which is Middle East Top Driver, which uses the Citroen DS3s and there’s a trophy for that. We’ve also launched the new [Daman] Speed Academy. That’s only one and a half months old and I think we’ll have to give it the full year before we see the full beauty of it.”
Time will tell if commitment on an international level, as well as continued efforts to introduce grassroots motorsport at home, will be enough to develop motor racing significantly in the Middle East. Though an Emirati winner of the Formula 1 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix seems a long way away, a home-grown WRC Abu Dhabi Rally winner may not be as far-fetched as once thought.