Helping to turn a corner

Chuck Culpepper reports on the desire and commitment of karting enthusiasts like the Rawahi family at the Al Ain Raceway to be the first UAE Formula One driver.

Mohammed al Dhaheri  leads the pack during the DD2 division qualifying race  yesterday in Al Ain.
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The family drove four hours from Muscat, then the teen-aged sons drove all morning and afternoon and evening at Al Ain Raceway, where upon the family drove four hours through the night back to Muscat because school in Oman begins spitefully on Saturday mornings.

In those drives and hundreds of others, the close-knit al Rawahi family epitomises both the unyielding commitment required to participate in motorsport and the gleam in the eye often found in the grass roots that played Al Ain Raceway yesterday.

"I'm planning to join Formula One and be the first Omani Formula One driver," Sanad al Rawahi, a mainstay on the UAE's national kart series, at age 15, said while resting between drives. "I'll try my best to reach up there." Some brought their dreams, some brought their need for speed and some just wanted the particular release of driving a kart on a nine-turn track, but when the lid lifted on the 12-round, seven-month, multi-palpitation chase, 52 kart drivers spent morning-to-darkness navigating the raceway in the UAE Rotax MAX Challenge.

As the series began its annual fall-to-spring rush, familiar names thrived. Mohammed al Dhaheri, who last April earned passage to the worldwide 2010 Grand Finals in Italy by winning the DD2 division, looked the picture of acumen in his six-second victory. Maurits Knopjes, the Dutch driver who represents the UAE, held off young al Rawahi by 0.42secs in the Senior MAX division. Al Rawahi's younger brother Abdullah, 13, already well-known here, won the Junior MAX with a crafty passage of Ameer Hassan. And Al Ain Raceway had hatched the fifth edition of the series that will feed into the 2011 Grand Finals.

"In terms of the series itself, it's really important for where the UAE is going in terms of motorsport," said Guy Sheffield, the general manager of Al Ain Raceway. "Even though this is entry-level stuff and we have a couple of older guys who just want to get in and race and not necessarily win, this is where it all starts. I think a lot of media and government entities in the UAE, now that Yas is here, a huge event, realize we've got the facilities, certainly the resources and not only can host an event.

"Now it's suddenly everybody saying, 'Hold on. Where is the Arab driver?'" Sheffield deemed the junior entries yesterday as "sadly quite sparse", but quickly added, "It's going in the right direction." As Antonio Kekati, the raceway managing director, pointed out, the 52 drivers represented a nice leap forward from the 30 who began 12 months ago. "It seems reasonable to posit that as that pool widens through the years, the desired driver will emerge, will have started from an achingly young age and will have gleaned all the painstaking discipline the sports requires.

"You cannot make a champion that comes falling from the sky," Suleiman al Rawahi said, and he knows well, his considerable energies and limited funds having been directed towards his sons' passion. They demonstrated commitment from an early age. They adored the karts at the Oman Automobile Club, the site of their mother's job as an accountant. Now their father takes them to the UK for testing and instruction, even as he drives them to the UAE for the races and secures hotel rooms for the family and often for a mechanic.

"I'm very proud of what they're doing because they showed their commitment," he said. "That's why I'm supporting them now … It teaches you discipline. It teaches you respect of others. And at the same time, you have to learn to manage your time." With each thrilling run - "I love the speed in the kart … I can feel it," he said - Sanad seems to learn something new. Yesterday, this: "Today my tyre went off," he said of a qualifying run. "It was my fault because I didn't check the tyres. But that will make me check the tyres for the next race. And I even felt how it feels when it's about to go off."

And while he readily reveals his Formula One daydream, his father refrains from "pressurising" him or Abdullah, knowing the plan is gradual. The objective this season, he said, entails only learning, the bit-by-bit gaining of experience as Sanad moves up to the 16-and-older division. Indeed, he looked even younger than his years on the podium adjacent the grown men he joined in the top three. "We're trying to grow the sport," Kekati said.

And as a determined teenager emerged from his kart after finishing second and helped roll it through the gates toward home, somebody asked Sanad, "Happy?" He got that gleam in the eye and said, "Yeah."