Saudi Arabia’s long-standing interest and passion for motorsport was a key factor in awarding the hosting rights of Dakar Rally to the kingdom in 2020 and for the coming years.
With an ever expanding fanbase across the country and to further develop female participation in motorsport, Dakar Rally organizers A.S.O. initiated a development project that aims to have female Saudi pilots take part in the 2021 edition of the challenging race.
To set up the project, A.S.O. worked with Saudi circuit racer Aseel Al Hamad, who is also a board member of the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation (SAMF) and a representative of the FIA Women in Motorsports Commission. Al Hamad proposed a grassroot approach to put young Saudi talents in the driving seat and prepare them for next year’s edition of the desert adventure.
To kickstart the ambitious project, A.S.O. reached out to Isabelle Patissier and Thierry Delli-Zotti, the owners of a rally driving academy in Morocco and Dakar Rally veterans. Patissier, who participated in the race nine times between 2002 and 2014 along with other several rallies in Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt and UAE, was asked to bring one of her four-seater cars to Dakar Saudi Arabia 2020 for this project, so a Land Cruiser T2 category was shipped to Saudi Arabia for that purpose.
Taking part in the program herself as a contender for Dakar Rally participation, Al Hamad also nominated a number of up-and-coming female Saudi pilots to hone their skills and prepare ahead of Dakar 2021.
Reem Al Aboud, a young racing driver and one of program members, drove the first stage of Dakar Saudi Arabia 2020 from Jeddah to Al Wajh. The 20-year-old is a club racer, whose passion for motorsport started with karting. She also 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.
Expressing her excitement to be part of the project, 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.”
Another female driver in the running to be the first female Saudi competitor at Dakar Rally is Dania Akeel. The 31-year-old biker got the first female Speed Bike Competition License issued by SAMF and competed in UAE National Sportsbike Super Series as well as the Bahrain BMR600 Championship.
Among the other names to feature in the program is 31-year-old dirt biker Mashael Al Obaidan who recently obtained a sport driving license and will be competing in local rally championships while she looks forward to the headline race next year.
Following Al Aboud’s drive from Jeddah to Al Wajh in Stage 1, Al Hamad drove the fifth stage from Al Ula to Hail and the sixth stage from Hail to Riyadh, while Akeel was behind the wheel in Stage 7 from Riyadh to Wadi Al Dawasir. Al Obaidan, meanwhile, drove in Stage 8, which started from and ended in Wadi Al Dawasir.
“This is just the start. We are doing this to discover our local female talents, work with A.S.O. to train them with Patissier and prepare them to compete at Dakar Saudi Arabia 2021,” Al Hamad said.
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. “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 was so happy doing this. She drives so well, and she has a bright future ahead.”
“Before I came to the kingdom, I didn’t expect that females might be interested in racing, 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.”
Dakar Saudi Arabia 2020 takes place over 12 stages contested in 13 days and sees 342 pilots from 62 countries drive nearly 8,000 km of uncharted Saudi desert.