'I keep having to remind myself it's really happening': the Saudi female race driver in the fast lane to success

Reema Juffali raced in front of her home crowd for the first time in Riyadh last month followed by a stint at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

Reema Juffali is first Saudi female race licence holder to compete in UAE's domestic TRD 86 Cup as well as the first to compete on home soil in Riyadh 
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Saudi racing driver Reema Juffali returned to her beloved FIA Formula Four last month. She was one of a record four women who competed in the F4 UAE Trophy race, supporting the biggest of them all: the Formula One Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Along with Emirati sisters Amna and Hamda Al Qubaisi and Dubai-raised Scot Logan Hannah, Juffali's run pressed the cause of Saudi Arabia's female drivers at Yas Marina.

In the competitive thrust of open-wheel racing, Juffali recorded a sixth-place finish in an unfamiliar car, having been reunited with Dubai's Dragon Racing, who managed her Toyota 86 programme last year. The result was her best single-­seat finish since she began racing in British F4 this year.

“I’d like to think that I wasn’t nervous about racing on the Formula One weekend, but it was slightly nerve-racking because it was in front of all the F1 teams,” she says.

Juffali's team was allocated Lewis Hamilton's garage apron as their temporary pit bay for the race, performing their pit stops and pre-race routines only metres from the six-time world champion and eventual Abu Dhabi Grand Prix winner.

"I tested Dragon's F4 car before the weekend and it was slightly different to the one I used in Europe, but I enjoyed it," Juffali says. "I know the track well, so it's been a good experience and my best result."

Juffali's first racing experience came last year at the Yas Marina Circuit, when she took part in the home-grown TRD 86 Cup. The competition is a one-make series for identical Toyota 86 coupes. "It's been just on 12 months since I finished my final Toyota 86 race at Yas, where I got my first win, and so much has happened since then, both for my racing career and in Saudi," she says.

By competing in the 86 Series at Yas, Juffali became the first Saudi female race licence holder to compete in the UAE domestic series and, at the conclusion of her debut season, she recorded an impressive second place in the Silver category and fourth overall in the series. The result allowed her to chase a drive in the competitive British F4 series as a way to enter singe-seater racing. This grabbed the interest of Jaguar Racing and led to her making a guest appearance as a factory driver in the Jaguar I-Pace eTrophy race that formed part of the FIA Formula E world championship in Saudi Arabia.

Every racing driver who spends her life travelling the world agrees that competing at home in front of family and friends is exciting, but for Juffali, who raced in front of her home crowd for the first time in Riyadh last month, the occasion took on a special significance. Not only was it her home race in a country that only recently opened its doors to the international sporting competition, but Juffali was also the first Saudi woman to compete on home soil, only 18 months after women were allowed to drive on the kingdom's roads.

As Juffali gridded up in the Jaguar I-Pace eTrophy race, she created history. She later admitted it was still hard to comprehend that feat given the enormity of the achievement.

"Can you imagine this? Here I am racing at home. I mean, who would have thought that?" Juffali said of her first race around the historic streets of Diriyah. "It's been such an amazing experience and I don't think I've taken it all in yet. I keep having to remind myself that this is really happening."

Juffali made her international racing debut about 10 months after Saudi Arabia lifted its ban on females driving, by competing in the British Formula 4 Championship with the locally based Double R Racing team at the Brands Hatch circuit in England in April. "F4 in Europe has been a really challenging season as I've had to learn all the new tracks in different cars and different conditions, so it was a constant learning curve and one that just got steeper as the season progressed," she says. "I'm really happy with where I finished at the end of the season and how much I learnt, especially with not having any single-seater experience prior to this year."

The Jaguar connection evolved after she was given an invitation to drive the electric I-Pace e-Trophy race car in a demonstration run at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in the UK in August. In hindsight, it was a test to see how Juffali could handle the car and the media, as well as provide technical feedback with her team, which she obviously passed with flying colours. Her invitation to take part in the real deal in Riyadh was duly sent.

"Reema's progress in her first year of single-seater racing has been very impressive," says Mark Turner, Jaguar eTrophy Series manager. "To have the first Saudi Arabian woman to compete in an international racing series within the kingdom is a major milestone for the sport and one that Jaguar Racing is immensely proud to have been able to support."

The Jaguar eTrophy is the first global series for electric saloon cars and runs as the major support event to Formula E. "I'm very proud because it's such a big moment, not so much for what I've been doing, but for what Saudi Arabia is going through and what we are seeing here," Juffali says. "We are very lucky and I am incredibly happy.

"The Jaguar I-Pace eTrophy opportunity has highlighted the innovation and progress of motorsport, giving more opportunity for men and women to compete together in cool electric race cars. The pace was there for me after qualifying was cut short, which meant I couldn't get a clean lap, but I think I have proved my pace."

As for next year’s racing plans, Juffali says she intends to put everything she has learnt together and focus on chasing down new championships in Europe, as well as appearing in other one-off guest races.