It's rare to meet any 16-year-old who knows exactly what they want to do for the rest of their life. And it's rarer still to meet a girl that age who has not only set her sights on being a racing driver, but has already represented her adopted country, the UAE, in motor-sport competition. Lewis Hamilton might still be punching the air after being declared Formula 1 World Champion for the fourth time, but even he had to start somewhere.
That somewhere is karting. Name a great racing driver, and it's highly likely they started in kart racing – a popular hobby and sport that's both fun and highly competitive. Michael Schumacher, Sebastian Vettel, Mark Webber and the aforementioned reigning champ – all of them started out on a kart, and hoping to join them in the pantheon of greats is Scottish teenager Logan Hannah. Sixteen and already a regular on the podiums, she's determined to rise to the dizzy heights of the upper echelons of motor sport, traditionally a space dominated entirely by men.
Hannah appears unfazed at the prospect of wading into such crowded and potentially hostile waters. On the contrary, when I sit down with Hannah and her father, Graeme, she's still abuzz following a successful first outing at Yas Marina's Grand Prix circuit, during which she experienced a Formula 4 car for the first time.
“It went as well as could be expected,” she smiles. “It was my first time on that track. I’d driven it on simulators, so I knew which way the track went and what gears to select when going into the corners. But it’s totally different when you’re doing it for real, dealing with the g-forces, the wind and the heat. After driving that car, though, it’s just made me want to do this even more.”
How does someone not even of legal age to drive on the roads get into motor racing in the first place? "It started," recalls Logan, "when my dad was racing in the Radical Middle East championship [a one-make race series that is also the Middle East's most successful]. I was always at the track, wanting to help and pestering dad to take me with him." Bitten by the racing bug, she managed to talk him around to the idea of competitive karting and, in 2013, she entered her first race at Dubai Kartdrome.
From the very beginning, Hannah stood out because of her methodical, measured approach to racing, and she scored enough points that year to qualify her to represent the UAE in the SWS World Junior Cup Karting Finals at Le Mans in France. That was followed by competing in the UAE’s Rotax Max Challenge, driving for the Sodi Middle East team.
Last year, though, was when things really started to come together. In January, she was selected to join the Young Racing Driver's Academy (YRDA) – a significant accomplishment for anyone in only their second season of racing. Last year, she also relocated from Dubai, after living in the city for 10 years, to Glasgow in Scotland. Her father has remained here, as he works in Abu Dhabi as a manager for Emirates Global Aluminium. Hannah and the rest of the family come over whenever they can, and the UAE winter months will make ideal conditions for spending time on track.
Last year, she also took third place overall in the Al Ain Raceway Challenge Trophy, reached the finals of the Ginetta Junior Scholarship competition and won Karting Magazine's Female Driver of the Year award. The success has continued this year, which brought with it new opportunities, one of which is entering the world of "formula" racing via F4 – the logical, progressive next step for any successful kart racer.
Formula 4 is motor-sport governing body Federation Internationale De L'Automobile's series run in individual regions, the Middle East's being held under the auspices of Dubai-based AUH Motorsports. The cars have been homologated by the FIA, have fibreglass bodies over carbon composite chassis, with front and rear crash boxes. "Hans" systems are incorporated for head and neck protection, as well as six-point harnesses to keep drivers firmly in place. The engines are turbocharged 1.4-litre Fiat Abarth units that produce 160hp, mated to six-speed sequential transmissions. There are adjustable wings in the front and rear for downforce, and they look just like a Formula 1 racer, only a bit smaller.
The physical demands of racing, even in karting, should not be underestimated. It's said that a driver in F1 will add about 40mm to his neck circumference over the course of a season due to muscle development; so how does Hannah prepare herself for such arduous conditions? "I have to keep on top of my fitness," she says, "make sure my diet doesn't slip. The YRDA academy trainers are extremely helpful with this – fitness and nutrition and other 'behind-the-scenes' things. What to eat, not to eat, how to build the right muscles."
Motor racing isn't just physically strenuous, it's expensive, too, no matter what level you're considering. And Hannah senior has been digging deep to keep his daughter's passion for it alive. "Even karting can be extremely expensive," he says. "When Logan started out, we knew we wanted to be in a team because of the benefits of being able to work together with teammates, which motivates drivers to be better, so that's what we did, but at a 'middle level' suited to the budget we'd set. We've got three kids, and we've always been open and honest with Logan that we'll help where we can, but there's a limit."
He says that racing in F4 is really beyond the budget, so it's figuratively crunch time, when sponsorship is required to fund a seat in the regional championship. Does being a female driver give Hannah an edge when it comes to attracting sponsorship? "To a specific sector, yes," he agrees. "But I feel that, because it is a historically male-dominated sport, that the mainstream brands and companies that sponsor young, upcoming drivers are probably favouring boys over girls. So we need to attract different kinds of organisations for Logan."
The UAE hosts a winter season of F4 with six races, the first one taking place later this month with the final one in March. Graeme estimates that to take part, with enough budget to cover training and repairs, will cost about Dh600,000.
Paul Hardy, the team manager at Energy Dubai Racing, says that during Hannah’s time in the F4 car at Yas Marina, she “showed great enthusiasm and confidence throughout the day, bearing in mind it was her first day in a single-seat race car on such a difficult and long circuit”, adding that he has “no doubt she could be a great contender for the championship”.
For now, though, the balancing act between racing and schooling must continue. Hannah has plans to go to university, saying that "Having that university education will mean that I can still have a career in motor sport, even if I don't get to be behind the wheel as a driver."
But that's not really an option, which is obvious after talking with her for just a few minutes. She's proved herself in karting and now F4 testing, and has every intention of becoming an IndyCar driver (the USA's answer to F1, where cars mainly race on banked oval circuits). She just needs to secure sponsorship to be able to race with a team and, judging by her pace behind the wheel so far, that little obstacle should be overcome in no time at all.