When Reema Juffali lined up on the grid in Abu Dhabi this past weekend, it marked not only the first tentative steps in a fledgling racing career but also a giant leap into the history books.
Juffali became the first Saudi female race licence holder to compete in the TRD 86 Cup at Yas Marina Circuit on Saturday, the opening meet of the 2018-19 season.
She took to the start line in the Silver category, finishing second and third respectively in both races (in her category). The points were the first ever picked up by a Saudi female driver in that series.
"It's great, I'm really happy," Juffali told The National. "I just completed my first race weekend. It was a great experience, unbelievable."
"A historic day," Juffali said, an understatement if ever there was one. "It’s a dream of mine. It’s unbelievable for me and for my country. I’m very happy.
Juffali is one of only three women in the GCC to hold a race licence. At 26 she is both new and latecomer to motorsport, made all the more remarkable as she has no real grounding to speak of in karting or motor racing save for a few race days at various tracks. There was also the barrier that she grew up in a country where women, until this year, were banned from driving.
If you consider that Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel began their karting careers at age eight and had won four Formula One world titles between them by the time they were Juffali's age, it makes her decision to ditch a career in finance to follow her dreams all the more daunting.
"I have had a passion for cars for most of my life but there wasn’t that many opportunities for me for karting when I was young," she said. "So whenever I was abroad I would do it for fun.
"I grew up watching F1 and Le Mans [24-hour race] and other races and you realise that most of the drivers start from such a young age and you have to work your way up from so young. I realised it was something I really liked and wanted to do. I thought 'this is something I could definitely try'."
Juffali's impeccable English was honed studying in the United States before moving to London for work. Her heroes are Hamilton and legendary Brazilian Ayrton Senna. But it was a meeting with former British racing driver Susie Wolff at the 2017 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix that inspired her to return to Saudi Arabia to start mapping out her next move.
Juffali freely admits she "didn’t really know how to approach" becoming a racing driver, but after impressing in several runs at the Dubai Autodrome, she made the decision to ditch her career in finance and dedicate herself to pursuing one on the track.
"Of course I was a little apprehensive and a little bit worried about chasing my dream but I left my job, I had time on my hands and I thought ‘why not?’"
With her first races under her belt, Juffali believes she is not so far off the pace compared to her more experienced rivals and feels she can challenge for podium places and even race wins.
"The level [of the other drivers] is high but I’m very close," she says. "I need to make a minor adjustments but I feel once I’m out there on the track I will finish even higher and get even better."
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Over confident? That's not how Juffali comes across, and certainly not the opinion of those who helped put the young Saudi on the start line on Saturday.
"She has an amazing attitude, she wanted to come in and learn everything about the car from a grass-roots level," said Jake Carlin, general marketing manager of Dragon Racing 88, a company that specialises in race day experiences to help drivers compete in regional championships.
"She really impressed during her track days at the Autodrome. She doesn't get carried away, has a fantastic coach [Adam Christodoulou, the former British Formula 3 driver] and is cool, calm and collected. For sure she will finish on the podium sooner rather than later."
In an industry dominated by men, the sight of a young Arabic woman on the grid is both rare and welcome. So how did the male drivers at the first round of the TRD 86 Cup react to Juffali?
"Overall it has been positive. Of course at first there was a lot of quietness, and they were a little bit taken aback and wondering why is this woman competing against us," she says. "There was some apprehension there, which is only natural, but by the end of the second race they all shook my hand and were encouraging me to keep going."
With the W Series, the first female-only series in motorsport - "a great concept", Juffali says - to be launched next year the prospect of having more women drivers on the grid looks promising.
And to all those young girls aspiring to pursue a career in sport, Juffali had this message: "Taking the first step is the most difficult, but once you do it’s very rewarding. Go after your dream, put your heart in it and you will achieve them."
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