He is the first Arab in history to earn a point in the World Rally Championships, and now, he might just be on the brink of racing immortality. Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi speaks candidly about his struggles, his setbacks, and ultimately, his triumphs. By Faizal Dahlawia.
It's easy to say that the privileged have an easier route to success. While that may be true to a certain extent, one can never discount the role of hard work, dedication, and above all, passion. These elements will not only bring success, but sometimes, greatness as well. Following this mantra religiously, Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi - as he continues to pen his name into the record books - looks set to leave his mark in the history of rally racing.
Against the wave
“My first race was in 1993. I didn't even have a driving license, but I was able to get into the race because it was not an official event. Although it was a small amateur event, I realised that I actually had the natural talent to do this,” Al Qassimi recalls.
“Unfortunately, my first experience was also fated to be my last for a while, as family problems prohibited me from pursuing my passion. In our society, it's very difficult for people to understand what you are doing. So it's not as easy as you think,” he nods.
Fact is, Al Qassimi hails from the ruling family, and with that moniker, comes clear rules and codes of conduct that he has to abide by – none more so than refraining from engaging in ‘illegitimate' races. In addition, Al Qassimi was expected to take the straight road to become a businessman, or even statesman, and not the poster boy for an extreme sport. So, for almost a decade, Al Qassimi let his passion for rallying bubble under the surface as he went about doing ‘normal' things - going to the US to get his degree in business management, involving himself in the family business, etc.
Nevertheless, the love for racing continued to run through his veins, and even during his hiatus from rallying, he participated in many small racing events like karting, just to satisfy his need for speed. Even then, he still managed to bag the top positions. And he knew where his destiny lay. “All this time, while I was doing single-seater racing, I knew that I wanted to ultimately go into rally driving. Rallying is extreme.
To me, there's no other form of racing that can give me the kind of adrenaline rush that rallying can,” he enthuses.
Not even Formula 1, which is arguably the world's biggest motorsport? “You see, other forms of racing are based on a fixed circuit. This is perfect for gatherings, for the media. For the drivers, you know which are the vital points and corners where you need to adjust your driving strategies. But rallying does not work like that. We go through different terrains; on mountains, forests, on snow, tarmac, black ice, mud, desert, and others. Each race is a completely new challenge. You go over there, and each time something new is presented to you,” he explains. And therein lies the thrill.
Let's get it on
In 2002, Al Qassimi, having no prior rallying experience, registered in the UAE and the Middle East Championships. He won both titles. “I've always known that I had the talent. The most important thing is not to just depend on the talent, but to work towards realising the potential that you have, and striving for the success that you know you can achieve,” he says, going on to explain the many ways in which he kept himself updated with the sport, “I was reading, I gathered information, I attended events, etc. When I registered, something in me just told me that I can do it.”
His confidence and belief in himself proved enough to see him through to success. “I believed in myself. I wanted to make this my career. I believed in what I was doing and I wanted to achieve things that no one has achieved before. If you want to do something, you have to be your own person. Like for me, I am an icon for myself. I believe that I can be my own person,” he asserts.
And how did his family react to his decision? “After winning titles in my first year ‘turning pro', it was easier to convince them. But I think, even now, they are not truly happy with what I am doing. We know that it is a sport, but like everything else, there is an element of danger in what I am doing. I doubt they will ever agree 100 per cent with my career choice,” he admits.
However, he knew from that moment when he registered for the race that there was no turning back, he was not going to allow anyone or anything to hold him back. “It was just that I felt that I was no longer a child, and my family can't stop me from pursuing what I want. I graduated, I worked hard, and decided that this is what I want from my life. I believe I can gain something from racing. I am mature enough, and can build my trust when it comes to the family,” he explains.
Up, down, and up again
Following those two coveted titles, Al Qassimi's career looked set to blossom. However, things took a turn for the worse. “The following year, I was trying to step up to another level, and that was when I started crashing. My family was unhappy, but they understood that I was trying to improve myself and get to that next step,” he says.
“Then I started to think; to win I don't need to always be in the top three, but more importantly, just finish. When I changed my thinking, I began to drive better again. Also, I decided to enter one or two races in the World Rally Championship (WRC), at my own expense, just to experience what it feels like. It was a really good step as that experience and knowledge showed me what I needed to do to get to where I wanted to be,” he recalls.
In 2004, Al Qassimi regained the regional championship title. “After that, I began to believe even more, and I wanted to achieve even greater things. Also, I wanted to represent a big organisation, like Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA), so that I could spread the right message for Abu Dhabi, for the sport and for the youth as well,” he says.
Al Qassimi's profile skyrocketed when he did become part of the BP-Ford rallying team in 2007. “This is the actual factory team and I was the first ever Arab to join a factory team,” he says proudly.
And the accolades kept pouring in. Last year, Al Qassimi made the longest jump, and won the Colin's Crest Award for it. This year, he scored points in the WRC in Rally Ireland, again, the first Arab to do so.
“In the WRC, I was racing against the best drivers in the world, so to just come in and take something from them is not easy. It was a big achievement (he finished in 8th place), especially since it's a very difficult terrain. Everyone was surprised and shocked, but definitely pleased for me to reach such a milestone,” he says, smiling at the thought.
With his prominence in the sport, does he see any challenge to his throne from other Middle Eastern drivers, or at least those with the potential to follow in his footsteps? “I don't like mentioning names, but there are definitely a couple of drivers in the region that are good. Each country has its established driver, so I would not mention some names, and yet forget others. But some of them are really good.” he said.
While he did not reveal any possible contenders, he did give a hint that regional drivers would need to really step up their game if they want to try and catch him. “I stopped competing in the Middle East championships for a couple of reasons. One, because the car is not the same standard as in the WRC, so I can easily be in the top three without any problems. And second, even with some technical problems, I can still make it to the podium. For me, I participate in the Middle East championships now to support my team and to support the juniors, to show that I am with them,” he says humbly.
Al Qassimi rates his landmark points as his two most memorable races thus far. “Cyprus and Ireland are the two most memorable races for me simply for the points that I earned. I mean, to score a point is amazing. I remember different events for different incidents. I remember my accidents, I remember my big jump, and many others as well. If I had to choose between Ireland and Cyprus, then it would be Ireland as that was my first ever point,” he muses.
A regular work day
“When you arrive at the race destination, usually two days before the event, you go down to recce the track. You are only allowed to check the routes, take notes, and that's it. After that, you go straight to the race. We have a drive around the circuit in a normal car during the recce that only goes a maximum of 60-80km/h, but that's basically it,” he reveals.
To explain it better for non-enthusiasts, motor racing, especially rally driving, is not as simple as just thumping on the gas pedal and turning the steering wheel. Instead, it takes extreme co-operation and understanding between the driver and his co-driver.
Al Qassimi explains that it's during this recce that it's critical for both the driver and co-driver take the necessary notes and precautions. “For example, I will say 200m, Right Three. We have numbers from 1 to 6 to ascertain the degree and angle of each turn. And then, we must take notes on the description of the terrain, after each turn or each jump, etc. So after the drive-through, you sit down with your co-driver and read out the notes, and we will both try to visualize the circuit. The day after the recce, we race and go flat out. We push our car to the maximum speed, and slam the accelerator down because each time you ease off the pedal, you will lose a second. So that's why I just go full throttle and keep the pedal to the metal,” he states, the passion evident in his voice.
As mentioned earlier, each track presents its own unique challenge, and like any driver, Al Qassimi has his own favourite ground. Not surprisingly, it's the desert track. “I was brought up in this terrain, so I can read it very well. It's familiar, and I know how to approach each corner. All the other terrains are not easy because they are new. On the flipside, the worst terrain that I have ever experienced would have to be when it was snowing on tarmac, with black ice,” he says.
Not just personal glory
With his pace of progress and status as a rallying star, Al Qassimi feels he has achieved most of his career dreams. “I'm already in a factory team, and personally, I feel that it is a credit to me to be able to score points in the championship – a big achievement for sure. I do not know how far I can go, because, by finishing and scoring points, I gain experience, and as a result, I can better and improve myself and my performance. For now, I am happy with what I have achieved so far,” he says.
Now, while still striving for the WRC podium finish, he wants to focus more on bringing his country to the forefront of motorsport. “What's high on my list of priorities is for Abu Dhabi to be able to host a rally championship. Then I will feel fulfilled,” he says, adding,
“We have a junior team, and it's vital that we give them the right tools for success. In Europe, there are many talented young drivers, and these people go to special schools to further enhance their performances. Many of them are in those special schools because of high profile contacts. But for us here, we really do have to start from scratch. What is important is we start with a programme. We are trying to develop young drivers and give them the opportunity to become future champions. So what I'm basically doing is giving them those opportunities that were not present for any driver before. This all came about with proper thinking and ideal planning with ADTA, because this is an image.
It is a difficult task but right now – we have already established a good base of drivers, and we now have the right infrastructure to help us in our mission.” Al Qassimi not only knows, but embraces the fact that his racing honour comes with responsibility. “I am basically trying to be the ambassador for the sport and represent the UAE in the championships. I truly believe that Abu Dhabi can be a major hub for motor racing.
We have the necessary infrastructure in place, and this gives me a big boost to continue what I am doing,” he explains.
His drive to promote the UAE, and the region, is also reflected in his personal endorsements. “There are a few companies who are showing interest, but I have kept the doors closed for certain reasons. That's because I would like to see more local companies reach out instead of international ones. This is not just good for the present, but also for the future, whereby drivers can get support more easily,” he says.
And it doesn't stop there. His personal involvement in his family business can also eventually lead him back to the sport. “I am Deputy Vice-Chairman of one of my father's company, and also hold positions in some others. Most of my time is spent in rallying, so I cannot do more than what I am doing right now. However, if there is an opportunity whereby I can be more involved in the business, I would take it up. What I really want to think about is how I can start a motorsport business in the future, one that can benefit those who are interested in the sport. But for now, there is no concrete plan of that just yet,” he shares.
History has shown that his ideas take shape soon enough, and when they do, it can only be good news for the sport in the region. With Al Qassimi leading the way, both on and off the track, the future looks bright indeed.
Driving situation in the UAE: We have a very good infrastructure as well as road facilities. Overall, we are much better off than many other countries in the region. However, whatever we do might still be insufficient because the numbers of cars are skyrocketing, but we are analysing and addressing the problems, definitely improving all key areas.
Ever been caught speeding: Definitely. In fact, my grandmother would be caught speeding, because of how the speed radars are placed.
Is it difficult for you to adjust and ‘slow down' on public roads: After driving for one whole week at breakneck maximum speeds, it is not only refreshing to drive slower, but also appreciated!
Most beautiful car: Porsche Carrera GT and SL 65 Black Series.
Best rally car driver: Sebastien Loeb. We call him ‘The Machine'.
Best F1 driver: Kimi Raikkonen.
Drive or be driven: I get nervous when I'm sitting as a passenger and not in control, so I would definitely like to drive.
Article by : Arabian Man
Posted: May Issue 2009