ZURICH: The sight of fast, expensive cars racing around the monied streets of Zurich is nothing new; the place oozes cash and, for many, the two go hand in hand.
That was the scene last month when Formula E revved into town as one of the 10 stopping points in its 12-race season. For some the sight of the same electric speed machines on the streets of Riyadh, when the city hosts next season’s opening race in December, will be equally fitting — the Saudi Arabia capital is known as a spot for fast cars and petrolheads.
But for Aseel Al-Hamad the race will be about far more than who simply reaches the chequered flag first. For the first female member of the Saudi Arabian Motorsport Federation, the race could inspire a generation of Saudi women to get behind the wheel.
The all-electric ABB Formula E Championship will make its Middle East debut in Riyadh just six months after the ban on women driving in the country was lifted. Although details are scarce, it is understood that activities involving women drivers will be incorporated into the ground-breaking race on December 15. For Al-Hamad, who also represents her country on the FIA Women in Motorsport Commission, that could pave the way for Saudi women not only to drive for the first time, but also to dream big and become professional racers.
“This is beautiful news for me. Our mission at the FIA Women in Motorsport Commission is to encourage the participation of women in all aspects of motorsport; not just racers, but as mechanical engineers, marshals, team managers, photographers and PRs,” Al-Hamad told Arab News.
“We are so lucky that Formula E is happening after the ban was lifted because it’s a great way to push motorsport for women aggressively. “Could we see a Saudi woman racing driver in the future? Definitely.”
That the Formula E circus, rather than Formula One, is storming into the Kingdom just months after the female driving ban was lifted is perhaps apt. Unlike F1, three women have raced in Formula E since its inception in 2014, and in Susie Wolff the sport can boast of having a female team principle. As with Al-Hamad, the former test driver for the Williams F1 team hopes the Riyadh race can do a lot for women throughout Saudi Arabia.
“Encouraging more women to be involved in motorsport is very important to me,” the principle of the Venturi Formula E outfit said.
“(That’s) why I started my initiative ‘Dare to be Different’ — a call to action to inspire the next generation of women to see the opportunities within motorsport, on and off the track.
“The start of the next season will bring lots of attention to the sport and the host city of Riyadh, but I will be firmly focussed on our debut performance at a new circuit and on ensuring the best possible result for the team.”
Motorsport is a tough sport, and on the streets of Zurich it was clear that, at least where Formula E is concerned, it is a highly competitive one as well.
The 10-year deal between the General Sports Authority (GSA) and the city-based spectacle of speed was signed in May and will see the series not only make its Middle East debut, but also unveil its futuristic next-generation car.
The race will be held in the picturesque Old City, Ad-Diriyah, on the outskirts of the capital, and Al-Hamad, who on the same day the female driving ban was lifted drove a Renault Sport F1 car in a parade before the French Grand Prix, insisted that it will accelerate interest in
motorsport across Saudi Arabia and the region.
The Kingdom held its first-ever international motorsport event, the Race of Champions, in February and Al-Hamad said: “The Race of Champions is a big international race and you could see many people who were not familiar with motorsport got introduced to it.
“This is a great opportunity to arouse passion in motorsport in the Middle East. Kids with a passion for this can see they can start training at an early stage and have a career in it.
“We are so happy to host an international race (series) that’s very popular. (Formula E) is the future of motorsport and the automotive industry in general.
“Saudi has the Vision 2030, which is very much supporting the idea of leading the way in innovation in technology and industry, so this race is a great, symbolic initiative.”
Of the venue she added: “It’s a very historic area and it’s going to be a beautiful way to show the combination of new technology, which is Formula E’s super-fast cars, and the old heritage of Riyadh. There are old mud houses and beautiful palaces, so I believe this is going to be great exposure to the heritage and tradition of our beloved country.”
The move to give the green light to Riyadh opening next season’s championship — one which will see former F1 ace Felipe Massa join the grid alongside other famous names such as Nick Heidfeld and Nelson Piquet Jr — has also got the thumbs up from the teams.
“(We are) extremely excited to race in Riyadh this December, particularly at such a pivotal time in Saudi Arabia with the Crown Prince’s Vision 2030 initiative diversifying its economy and nurturing new industries,” Jay Penske, Dragon owner and team principal, and CEO of Penske Autosport, told Arab News in Zurich.
“We are proud that we and Formula E will have the opportunity to participate in Saudi Arabia’s vision for the future.”
James Barclay, Panasonic Jaguar Racing team director, said: “The Middle East has a wealth of passionate and knowledgeable motorsport fans that will welcome the series to the region. The Middle East is a key region for us to promote our electrification message ‘Race to Innovate’ and our electrified vehicles.”
The race in Zurich, the home of title sponsor ABB’s global headquarters, attracted an estimated 150,000 fans and illustrated that the sport, although still very much in the shadow of Formula One, has a popular and growing fanbase and a bright future. The series’ first-ever race took place only four years ago and it is already making loud noises in the motorsport world, with fans speculating whether it will one day get out of the slipstream of its better-known cousin and overtake it.
Alejandro Agag, founder and CEO of Formula E, said he could not wait to get to the Riyadh race and introduce the series to a new destination.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the new cars and format in action against the backdrop of iconic city skylines, starting in Ad-Diriyah in December,” Agag said.
That view was echoed by Michael Isaac, spokesman for ABB, a global technology company and leader in electrification, robotics and motion, said: “As title sponsor of the ABB FIA Formula E Championship, we are delighted that the 2019 season will open in Riyadh in December. Saudi Arabia is one of ABB’s most important markets in the Middle East and we are committed to supporting the development with e-mobility and sustainable technologies.”