The Arab world has been part of the Formula 1 calendar for over 15 years, with Bahrain’s Sakhir joining in 2004, followed by Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina in 2009, with Qatar and Saudi Arabia coming on board this year.
The region has embraced the sport at the highest level with the no-expense-spared venue but what’s missing is an Arab F1 driver, and we might have found the future one.
A driver developed through the tough and unrelenting junior karting series in Italy, following in the exact same footsteps of the greats such as Michael Schumacher, Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg, Max Verstappen and just about every driver on the F1 grid today and before them.
These first steps on the ladder to the pinnacle of the sport have not been experienced by an Arab driver, until now when one has not only travelled on that journey but has very much excelled in junior-level karting in Italy.
This is 13-year-old Rashid Al Dhaheri, who hails from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Abu Dhabi in particular, home of the country’s Grand Prix, at Yas Marina Circuit.
His story started in 2011, when he was three years old, and visiting the F1 paddock at Yas Marina, Rashid was taken by the F1 cars and activities in the pits. The staff at Ferrari noticed him and he was allowed into the team’s garage area and shown around, and that was it, he got hooked.
Three years later, at the age of five, Rashid started his racing journey in Karting, and is now racing in the OK-Junior Category, with his eyes firmly set on Formula 4, in less than two years’ time, when he will be 15 years of age.
Grandprix247, got together with the young protégé, for an in-depth interview regarding his career thus, and are pleased to report that it was time very well spent with an articulate, intelligent and well-spoken young man, with a wise head over his shoulders, with modesty and maturity that bely his age.
Rashid is a self-taught piano player, using music for relaxation, focus and “seeking perfection” all part of the steely determination to achieve his goals and, if his achievements to now are anything to go by, he is on his way to fulfilling those goals.
Question: Rashid, it’s a great pleasure to meet you, an upcoming Arab karting talent. Looking at your website, you’ve been doing an amazing job up to now. So I understand that it started back in 2011. You were three years old and watching the race and that was it. That’s how you got hooked or? Did you watch racing at home? How did the passion start?
Rashid Al Dhaheri: Well, it started actually, in 2011. I was three and, I’m not sure if it was the first Formula 1 race in Abu Dhabi. But we went to watch and, from there, it all started. I looked at the cars, I was interested. We had the paddock walk. And, I looked at the cars and then I stopped in front of the Ferrari garage. I was there like for half an hour and my parents were calling me to go look at the other car and I stayed there.
And then finally they, allowed me in to go inside not the paddock lane, but inside the garage. And then I stayed there about another 15 minutes. Then one of the mechanics noticed me, and he picked me up and showed me around the car. He showed me the steering wheel and everything and I instantly loved the sport. Yeah! That was the big beginning.
Q: Did you meet any of the drivers?
Rashid: Yes, I met Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa. Alonso was my hero. He was my hero and still is, and for me is a really great driver. Not only because he’s a great driver, but also because he was instantly nice to me.
Q: Which brings me to my next question. Who’s the driver, your idol? Alonso? What about the new generation?
Rashid: For me, yes. He’s, I mean, a great driver.
The new generation for me, Max [Verstappen] is a great driver. But for me, Charles [Leclerc] is really good because not, not only in Formula 1, but in Formula 2, we were watching a race and he was he has already won the Championship. But it was the last lap, and I was watching and then saw him trying to run the guy in front of him a little bit wide. He got inside and although he could just get second, there was no reason for him to win, but he still wanted to.
I just saw like how much he wanted to win. And for me, that’s really impressive, because, he didn’t risk everything, but he risked enough and at the end, he won. It was actually quite a calculated move.
Q: That was Abu Dhabi 2017, right?
Rashid: Yes, he was doing GP2.
Q: So things really kicked off when you were five years old? That’s when you officially started your racing career in karting. How did it come to that? What were the discussions with the family at home like? Rashid will start racing at five?
Rashid: It’s a funny thing, because, we were at home after that, and when I came back to my parents at dinner and I said, ‘I want to be a Formula 1 driver’.
They said okay, okay as they didn’t take it seriously, but I said it again the next day and for the next two months, I kept on saying that.
They didn’t believe me, but they were just saying, well, okay. Then finally, I think after a few months, they said, ‘we’ll see’. Then they went on Google, because they had no idea how to start. They went on Google to check how to start racing. And then they found the Karting thing, and it all started when I was five when I started driving. It started small but slowly. Yeah, I kept on getting better and here I am now.
Q: How does that work with your education? You’re still young, you still have to go to school? Were there any conditions that you have to do well at school to keep doing that? How do you balance school and racing?
Rashid: Well, school, most of the time, have been able to, support me. We’ve been able to cooperate well. Almost all the time I’ve been racing in Italy. I’ve always gone back and forth and whenever I was home, I worked an entire day to catch up at school and also worked ahead, as when I left I of course I wouldn’t be able to do as much but when I came back, I caught up so it’s always been a matter of catching up.
Now with COVID, I’ve been on Zoom a lot. And I’ve been doing meetings with the teachers and they’ve helped me out a little bit, so I’ve been doing most of the things with the school sending me stuff and I would like complete it in my spare time.
Q: How is your relationship with your friends? Do you have enough time for them?
Rashid: Friends in the school, it’s hard because, you go away and when you come back you see, okay, this guy started playing soccer, this other guy likes reading books. And your reactions would be: ‘What happened?’
At the racetrack, it’s a bit hard to have friends. Because they’re your friends outside, and then you go on the racetrack and you want to win. You want to beat the guy. So it’s, it’s hard to have a good friend.
Q: And do you get any celebrity treatment, being the Karting Champion?
Rashid: I just try to do my best. Some people asked me take photos and I am always happy to. Remember Alonso long ago, who’s been always nice. That has made me become the person I am today. I’m always happy when someone asks me to take a photo with them. And, to help them, well not help them, but to make give them an interest in what we do.
Q: So touching back on your parents. In motor racing, there is risk involved in it. How do you guys deal with it? How did you evaluate the risks? Do they have sleepless nights when you’re racing? How do they deal with that issue?
Rashid: It’s a good question. For my father, he didn’t know much about racing. But now he has gotten a lot of interest in it and knows a lot. Most of the time when I raced in Italy, my parents would stay up during the night watching my races and everything.
The risks? Of course, my mother is not super happy about those risks, but she knows that I love the sport. And even if she tells me: ‘Don’t do it!’ I will still want to race no matter what.
Q: Now you’re doing the OK Junior Category. What’s the next step?
Rashid: Well, Junior is one of the last categories. Next year will be my last year in karting, and we’ll be in the next category, OK, which already has drivers who have been around for a few years in racing Go Karts at a professional level.
Of course, next year will be hard, it will be demanding. And I’ll try to do my best and see what I can do.
Q: When will you make the big step to single-seaters? Formula 4?
Rashid: Well, that would be when I turn 15. So not next year, but the one after and yeah, it will be a super exciting year, finally getting into Formula 4.
Q: Are the preparations ongoing? Do you prepare for that step from now, in terms of sponsorship, logistics?
Rashid: That part is, of course, quite complicated. But I just try to do my best, try to go as fast as possible, try to win and get podiums. And then everything comes together. I think, hopefully, on its own.
Q: And then ultimately, it’s Formula 1, right?
Rashid: Yes, hopefully. Yeah.
Q: Going through your website, I could notice the sponsorship that you have from back home. How do you feel the support has been from the UAE? I know that the UAE has been big on motorsports, maybe more in rallying than in single-seaters, but I know that they support their own and they take pride in what.
How do you feel the support has been, with sponsorships and with the community in the UAE?
Rashid: The UAE has been very supportive to me, I thank them for what they’ve been able to do for me so far. And of course, now it’s in Go Karts which is not as big as, maybe Formula 2, 3 or 4, but I think the further you go up, the more interest there is because it’s more challenging.
So it’s harder work, but more interest. So maybe people will slowly get more interested in the sport, maybe, as much as they like rally or even maybe more. All drivers need sponsors and, hopefully, good results will help in this area.
Q: Let’s talk bit about this year’s F1 season. Are you enjoying it? I know I am because it’s it hasn’t been that exciting for a while now. I’ve been watching Formula 1 since 1996 and this is the most exciting season I’ve witnessed personally. What are you thoughts on it? Max or Lewis?
Rashid: I mean, for me, it’s a great season. I feel that from the middle of the season, we could have expected a few more battles on track. Unfortunately, I think one of them ended up with them crashing, another one they almost crashed. Then most of the time, it has been a quite, of course, a team effort. The teams have helped both drivers.
I think, for Max, he’s been good in many races. The only thing is that he has a few crashes. So that’s the only, bad part. I think Lewis has been a bit more consistent, but hasn’t been able to win as much as Max did. For me, if Lewis is able to win the next race, then it would have to go all the way to Abu Dhabi, and whoever wins or whoever gets ahead of the other there will win the championship. If Max wins [in Saudi Arabia], then I think there’s a high chance that Max wins.
Q: Who are you cheering for? Who do you want to win?
Rashid: I think it would be cool if Max wins, because I can relate to him competing in the same championships I am competing now; Go Karts. Yeah. It’s been a few years and he has worked hard. I think Max would be cool to win because it’s been a few years with Lewis winning.
On the other hand, it would also be great for Lewis to show that he’s able to win close championships. And, for me, they are the best drivers and are great in my opinion. For me, it’s okay for both of them to win.
Q: I want to go back to one thing, which I do actually relate to. I saw one of your videos on Facebook and you’re playing the piano. So how does music fit into racing? Does it help you in racing? I’m an amateur musician, myself, so how does music work with racing?
Rashid: For racing, music is a great way to relax, especially when you come back from a race and then you evaluate the race. Because you don’t hear the sounds of the car passing. So it’s a good way to like change what you hear around you, and also, when you play, you don’t think of the race. It’s a moment that you kind of forget what happened. And for me, it’s a great way to unwind. It’s, for me, mostly relaxation between racing events.
Music also has a few connections with racing, because both require a lot of concentration when you want to make something perfect. Concentration on hand-eye coordination.
Q: I always believed the most important thing with music is discipline, it teaches you discipline, as does racing. Do you agree?
Rashid: Yes discipline is also important. The more times you fail, you eventually get it right. And I’ve actually learnt the piano, almost like everything else, on my own. I think it’s now been one year precisely that I’ve been playing the piano and I was only able to have a teacher for one month in summer. So if you give me the notes, I wouldn’t be able to do anything, but yeah, I’m able to play a few songs.
Q: So what’s the next step? The next event?
Rashid: My next race is going to be next January, the second half of it. So at the beginning of January, I’m probably going to start training with the team again, and the team will start preparing the Kart, just to understand how we would like to have it set as a base for the races. And that’s about it.