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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - These are happy days if you happen to be a motorsport fan in Saudi Arabia.
For many years, the desert landscapes of the Kingdom have been a natural home for international rallies, including for the last two years, the world-famous Dakar.
More recently, Saudi Arabia has witnessed the revolutionary introduction of Formula circuit racing with the hosting of three Formula E weekends, starting in 2018 and culminating in the recent historic double header of night races at the Diriyah E-Prix.
The event may have had a limited live audience, but the interest shown in it, especially around the Diriyah Gate Development, was a clear indication of just how popular racing has become in the country.
And it is about to get better. In December, Formula One racing will finally come to the country with the hosting of the first ever Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in Jeddah.
While rallies are for the most part spectacular television spectacles, Formula racing is something that has to be witnessed live to be truly appreciated.
Competitiveness, risks, and entertainment are what the crowds want to see, and should fans be allowed back into circuits in the coming months, Saudi’s growing number of racing events will find a more than hungry audience.
Motorsport fandom in the Kingdom encompasses all aspects of cars.
There are long-time fans of competitive racing, and the more casual watchers. Some are car collectors and others curious about the technology behind the motors. And then there are real racers hoping to emulate world famous drivers.
“More than anything, I love to see the winning car,” Waleed Ibrahim, one of the organizers of the Formula E event, told Arab News. “The danger it goes through, it makes me feel excited and I cannot wait to attend Jeddah Formula One race.”
It’s no surprise that for the fanatics, having a Formula One Grand Prix in the Kingdom is as exciting as a World Cup would be for a football fan.
“Formula 1 is the greatest sporting event after football,” said Omar Allahim, a Saudi desert rally driver and coach. “It is the biggest and oldest race in the world of cars and coming to the Kingdom is considered as a historical leap in the development of Saudi sports.”
“As a teenager back in the old days I used to do a lot to afford attending the races in Bahrain,” he said.
The Saudi racing fans all speak of their common desires to hear the echo of loud formula engines, and enjoy watching the best drivers from around the world giving it their all.
Some embrace racing more than others.
Almohannad Alsharif, a huge motorsport enthusiast since he was a child, a supercar collector, and a racer himself, told Arab News: “My dad has always liked cars and driving fast, so I decided to dig deeper into them until I became a certified FIA international pro driver.”
“Although I offroad and enjoy driving luxury sedans, driving supercars on the track is my greatest passion,” he added. “Especially if they are involving manual transmission, traction off, rear-wheel drive, big engine, and are lightweight.”
Alsharif also has participated and won a number of national competitions.
“I’ve been racing since 2001 in the USA, and I’ve won multiple national championships, the latest was in late 2019,” he said.
Not surprisingly, he is also a big fan of Formula racing - having raced Formula 4 in Dubai in 2015 - and he described it as “the pinnacle of circuit racing”. He also believes that Jeddah Formula 1 Grand Prix “is a huge step for Saudi” and hopes to be a part of the races taking place before the showpiece event scheduled for December 5, 2021.
Formula racing may be relatively new to the Kingdom, but its breeding ground, karting, and the more established rallies are not.
Khaled Al-Zayed, a Saudi driver and member of the Royal Guard team has been racing since 2008.
“I have participated in 50 international race and 180 national races,” he’s said. “My love of motorsport led me to be skilled in both karting and rallies.”
Al-Zayed has three different international racing licenses, including for Group C, karting, and rally.
“Racing on the track makes me feel alive, and now that we have the Formula one race coming to Jeddah, it is a huge deal and it will help us to show the world how much fast cars mean to us,” he added.
Just over three years ago, women couldn’t even drive in Saudi Arabia, but the societal changes that have swept the country in recent times means they have increasingly embraced racing as a sport, with a chance to shine alongside male racers.
Mashael AlObaidan, a Saudi rally dirt bike racer, told Arab News that she has always been a huge fan of motorsports and watching movies of women riding motorbikes inspired her to do so herself.
“Adrenaline just rushes in my blood when I race, it is pure happiness,” she said. “To have Formula events in my country, it is a big achievement and I am really proud of it and I am also super proud of our female Formula champion Reema Juffali, and our male Saudi car drivers as well.”
“Saudi Arabia is doing a great job in a lot of sectors especially motorsports,” AlObaidan said. “We have the biggest races and that shows you where we are heading. It is a bright future for the sector and I love it.”
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