One Sunday late last month at the Pista Azzura di Jesolo karting facility in Italy, near Venice, there was a driver’s parade and there, in the middle in a red racing suit, was an Emirati boy waving his country’s flag.
A few hours later, Rashid Al Dhaheri was standing on the podium as the winner of the Academy Champion Kart Series International Grand Finals, the final race of the 2014 Italian Karting season.
It has been a whirlwind year for six-year-old Al Dhaheri, nicknamed “Little Alonso”, who first came to the public’s attention when he was pictured with Ferrari driver Fernando Alonso at last year’s Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
That wide-eyed little boy, who posed for photos with his hero at Yas Marina Circuit, has become a champion in his own right.
A second-place finish in Al Ain Raceway’s UAE Rotax Max Challenge 2014 racing season was followed by a successful stint for Ippoliti Racing at the Italian EasyKart Championships and culminated in his triumph at the stand-alone event in Jesolo.
“In his category, Rashid was the boy to beat all weekend,” said Fausto Ippoliti, team principal of Ippoliti Racing.
“He definitely made a name for himself here in junior karting, and for us it is a pleasure to be part of his karting programme.”
Ali Al Dhaheri is proud of his son’s progress.
“Rashid adapted quickly despite being among the youngest drivers in the field and on tracks and conditions foreign to him,” he said. “This has been a major year in his development thanks to his dedication, passion and hard work.”
Al Dhaheri’s Italian adventure can be traced back to former Formula One team owner in Giancarlo Minardi, who was impressed to see the youngster in Dubai while on a visit.
Minardi, whose F1 team ran under his name between 1985 and 2001, said: “I saw a man of six years. He was driving with disarming command. I wanted to see him in settings unknown to him.”
Minardi convinced Rashid’s father to join the Italian karting season in April, and he has not looked back.
“We threw him into the deep end where he competed at one of the most competitive karting series for young drivers today,” the senior Al Dhaheri said.
Rashid was battling in fields of 25 to 35 drivers in 50cc and 60cc karts, with rolling starts and all the regulations that go with top-class karting.
His results in 10 events (five heat wins, six second-place finishes, many after having started from the back of the grid) only tell half the story.
Whether rain, sunshine, dust, or hot and dry conditions, Rashid seems to be a boy for all seasons, adapting to all environments like a veteran.
For his father, two moments stand out.
“The first was Rashid’s first victory in January 2014 in the Dubai O-Plate race weekend at the Kartdrome,” Al Dhaheri said.
“A day when our five-year-old boy achieved three wins against rivals between five and eight years of age.”
The second came in Italy in September.
“Rashid scored an amazing victory in the Parolin Academy championship driving a 60cc kart among kids aged between six and 10,” his father said.
Ippoliti said he believes it is not just Al Dhaheri’s raw pace that has developed from his time in Italy.
“Rashid is now driving with his head, executing the right move at the right moment,” he said. “It is really a pleasure to work with such a good driver who is so eager to learn and progress.”
Al Dhaheri’s father has devised a five-year plan that will see his son take part in competitions in the UAE and across Europe, in “all categories of karting, and in all conditions”.
“We will enter him in a variety of races and we will be sure to select carefully ones which will help him develop,” he said.
“Italy will remain a destination, it is the cradle of junior motorsport with many current F1 drivers having performed and graduated from the Italian karting scene.”
No one knows that more than Minardi, who gave F1 debuts to the likes of Giancarlo Fisichella, Mark Webber and Jarno Trulli, and, to Rashid’s delight, Fernando Alonso.
There is a long, long way to go in Rashid’s career, but the ultimate goal is to become the first Emirati F1 driver.
He will need financial backing, sponsorship and constant improvement, which, for now, must be taken in baby steps.
“I think that Rashid is a real talent, with a huge passion for this sport. If he is managed in the right way I think he will probably be the first driver of Arab origin who will be talked about for [achievements] in this difficult world of motorsport,” Minardi said.
“It is a lot to live up to, but Rashid seems unaware of any pressures, taking every obstacle he has faced so far in his stride. Above all, he seems to be enjoying himself.”
The joy of being behind the wheel is something his family is keen to preserve above all else.
“The most important target during these next five years is to ensure Rashid continues to enjoy racing,” Al Dhaheri said.
“He is still a kid and enjoyment should be his first priority.
“The fact that he has excelled is a bonus.”
Follow us on Twitter at SprtNationalUAE