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Building on the success of Dakar Rally 2020 held for the first time in Saudi Arabia, enthusiasts and teams from the region have stepped up their efforts to attract and train more Arab women in rally racing and motorsport.
This year, Bahrain’s JCW X-Raid competed and won in the race that took place over 12 stages and saw 342 pilots from 62 countries drive 7,500km of uncharted Saudi desert. However, there were only 13 female contestants in the race.
In2001, Jutta Kleinschmidt, nicknamed “Miss Dakar” became the only female racer to win the competition in its 42-year history and helped organise the race this year.
When asked at the side-lines of Dakar 2020 about her victory and women in the sport, she said: “I loved this sport and wanted to compete, and I never thought about my gender in that process. I was a competitor against the others and I wanted to win against them. I felt equal and, for me internally, there was no reason I could not achieve that.
“This is important because of the [predominant belief] that women are not as good [as men] because of the difference in physical strength, but motorsport has many other skills and it is not as important to be muscular. This is one of the things I like about motorsport; it is one of the very few sports that are mixed.”
In Bahrain, Martyna Ewa Al-Qassab, who in 2017 became the first woman to finish on the podium of the 2000cc Championship held at the Bahrain International Circuit (BIC), has been spearheading Yalla Banat, a forum for women racers across the Middle-East, aiming to ‘inspire the next generation of women achievers, especially in motorsports.’
In comments to the GulfWeekly, she stated: “As a result of efforts by Yalla Banat, there are plans in place to launch an organisational body to further nurture and grow female talent in rally racing and motorsport in Bahrain.
“This would make Bahrain the first country to have a separate organisational body dedicated to encouraging and nurturing female talent in motorsports. We want to build on Bahrain’s history of great rally racers including Karina Ghaloum, the daughter of Abdulrahman Ghaloum. We hope to have a team ready for the 2023 Dakar rally.”
In Saudi Arabia, Dakar Rally organisers Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) have worked with Saudi circuit racer Aseel Al Hamad, in developing a grassroots approach to put young Saudi talents in the driving seat and prepare a team to drive a simulation of the desert race.
ASO also recruited Isabelle Patissier and Thierry Delli-Zotti, Dakar Rally veterans and owners of a rally driving academy in Morocco. Patissier has participated in the race nine times between 2002 and 2014 along with other several rallies in Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt and UAE.
Patissier noted: “Our idea is to train the females on the actual Dakar stages to give them a true sense of the experience and prepare them for a real Dakar to come. I liked doing this because I could see how Reem Al Aboud was so happy doing this. She drives so well, and she has a bright future ahead.”
Al Aboud, whose passion for motorsport started with karting, drove along the first stage of Dakar Saudi Arabia 2020 from Jeddah to Al Wajh. Al Aboud has previously won the second place at Saudi Time Attack and was the first Saudi female to test the Formula-E car in Diriyah ABB Formula E in 2018.
Al Aboud said: “I never imagined how thrilling it would be. The experience is totally different from track racing. I now know that I’d want to be a rally driver besides my passion for track racing. It will require a lot of training and dedication to gain proper experience, and I am up for it.”
Al Hamad drove the fifth stage from Al Ula to Hail and the sixth stage from Hail to Riyadh. Dania Akeel who is the first female licensed speed biker and has competed in UAE National Sportsbike Super Series and the Bahrain BMR600 Championship, was behind the wheel in Stage 7 from Riyadh to Wadi Al Dawasir.
Mashael Al Obaidan, meanwhile, drove in Stage 8, which started from and ended in Wadi Al Dawasir.
On her involvement in the female Saudi drivers’ project, French rally trainer Patissier said her excitement grew even more when she was pleasantly surprised by the strong interest of Saudi women in motorsport. “Before I came to the kingdom, I didn’t expect that females might be interested in racing,” Patissier explained. “But, I discovered a totally different sentiment; they love racing! This initiative will help improve the sport scene for females in Saudi Arabia, and we will work to expand this experience further in the future.”