In 2023, RABDAN Motorsport brings an all-Emirati driver line-up to the Hankook 24H DUBAI – its home event – for the second year in a row. Finishing is the target. But winning, according to team boss Saif Al Ameri, is ultimately the goal.
Words – James Gent
Images – Petr Frýba / Yas Marina Circuit
As we sit in MRS GT-Racing’s motorhome in the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya paddock, there are still three months to go before the 18th annual Hankook 24H DUBAI, the first of two home events for Saif Al Ameri in January. But already, his ambition is palpable. The Emirati driver wants to win. Badly.
“My eventual goal is to do the [Hankook 24H DUBAI] with two cars: one car will have a full Emirati line-up, and the other will be ‘hybrid’ to increase our knowledge and the expertise. And we need that.
“For sure, this is an investment. For me. For RABDAN Motorsport. And for our drivers. We’re here to win and bring it home. If you walk with wolves, you’d better be a wolf. If you walk with sheep, you’ll always be a sheep. I want us to be wolves.”
Proof of Saif’s determination was, ironically, in evidence at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya 12 months before his chat with CREVENTIC. Competing in only the second international motor race of his career – the 2021 Hankook 24H BARCELONA – Saif was partnering with Nikolai Gadetskii, Nicola Michelon and Audrius Butkevicius in a ‘RABDAN Motorsport’-bannered, MRS-operated Porsche 911-II Cup.
All was going well too: having acclimated himself with the circuit during Free Practice, Saif, nine hours into the race itself and 90 minutes into his second stint, was running a strong 2nd in-class as he rounded Barcelona’s notoriously fast turn 16 for the 263rd time. Moments later, after screaming past the pitlane exit at 230kph, the Porsche’s right front brake disc explodes, firing Saif first into the infield barriers and then, still at high-speed, into the gravel at turn one.
It’s a scary incident, but one, Saif admits, he must accept if he, RABDAN Motorsport and indeed the UAE want to perform competitively at an international level.
“Absolutely that was scary! But it was also an experience. Winning will not come easily.” – Ironically, teammates Michelon and Butkevicius would both take GTX victory at the following round in Hungary with RD Signs. – “This is motorsport, and you have to expect the unexpected. Hard times gives you hard people. So, I’m not a quitter. One day I’m confident we will do it.
“I mean, do you think I left my country, spending all of this money and energy and health, and time spent with my family, just ‘to finish’? I’m here to bring it back home!”
It’s a mentality that’s stuck with Saif since his racing career started building steam in 2016. That year, he made his debut in the UAE’s Toyota TRD 86 Cup, a single-make series catering to both to aspiring national racers as well as gentlemen enthusiasts keen to continue racing during the winter. At its core was Toyota’s entry level – and exceptionally light-footed – rear-wheel drive sports car.
Power? Irrelevant. Even at its most TRD ‘opulent’, the Toyota 86 produced less than 200hp, meaning maneuverability was the priority over brash power. The perfect environment for a debuting Saif Al Ameri to cut his competitive teeth.
“This was the only UAE regional series that could show me the basics of motorsport: yellow flags; red flags; pit boxes; what to do if you crash; how to manage with the car, etc. In a Porsche Carrera Cup, time is short, and a team doesn’t have much time to get its drivers up to speed. This… this wasn’t a simulator. It was a real experience.
“And I can tell you, 25 minutes in a Toyota 86 is equal to two hours in the Carrera Cup! Because, all the time, you are fighting with the car, with a manual six-speed clutch, through the slow corners. It was all about stamina and endurance.
“Plus, if ever I crashed that car, it really wouldn’t cost me anything. So, I learned to make all my mistakes in a Toyota 86 so I knew how to take care of a Porsche!”
As can be reasonably expected, Saif’s first motorsport campaign was more solid than spectacular. With Karim Al Azhari, Shihab Al Faheem and Mohammed Abdul Ghaffer monopolizing the podium during their championship tussle (Al Azhari ultimately came out on top for the third year in a row), a brace of 4th places was as good as it got in 2016/2017. A run that nevertheless secured Saif the series’ Silver Cup class-title first time out.
Changes were clearly needed if Saif hoped to work his way up the grid, and rather than go it alone for 2017/2018, the reigning ‘Silver’ champion instead aligned himself with tuning specialist PP-Performance, thus sharing his racing experiences with new teammates Hamdan Al Ghaferi and Mohammed Al Qubaisi.
It worked. While Saif’s 2017 ended very much as it had started with 4th at the opening round in Abu Dhabi, it was the only time during the six-round, 12-race 2017/2018 campaign that he failed to finish on the podium. By round three, he’d secured his first series win, and by season’s end, he was the TRD 86 Cup UAE champion. Three-time champion Al Azhari’s winning streak had finally been broken.
Despite starting his title defense with a double win at Yas Marina, poor luck meant Saif slipped to 3rd in the Gold standings in 2018-2019, though by this point, his attention was already moving towards endurance. Initial steps included participation in the TRD 86 Cup’s maiden ‘Enduro’ event in 2018 – at which he finished 3rd behind a debuting Reema Juffali – and its follow-up in 2019. Hey, 45 minutes was twice the average length of the series’ ‘sprint’ affairs…
Saif’s biggest leap came in December 2019 when, buoyed by a now-extensive knowledge of Yas Marina’s North and South circuits, he signed up for the venue’s annual 12-hour endurance race aboard 3Y Technology’s BMW M4 GT4 – a car he’d never driven prior to that weekend – alongside Ahmad Almoosa, Saeed Al Mehairi, and Sheikh Hasher Al Maktoum.
“I did the Gulf 12 Hours in 2019, and it was the same concept we have now: four local drivers in the car. And we finished 4th [in-class], which I don’t think a lot of people expected. We knew 12 hours would be tough, but I learned so much from that experience that… I just knew that a 24-hour race was always going to be the next step.”
Admittedly, with Covid putting regional and international motorsport briefly on the shelf in 2020, it was another 14 months before the ‘next step’ of Saif’s endurance transition was realized at the 2021 Hankook 24H DUBAI. Much like the 12-hour event at Yas before it, Saif would be racing a car of which he had no prior experience, albeit one that had already impacted his burgeoning racing career…
“I’ve been in the TRD 86 Cup for four years, and I wanted to jump into the Porsche [911 GT3 Cup]. The advice that I got: if you practice with the Cup car, you can drive any car in any class. So, I chose the Cup car because, one day, I want to race in GT3. And also because I want my team to master the Carrera Cup with me, because it’s a heavy car, with low downforce, and high horsepower. The Porsche GT3 Cup is the Harvard of motorsport.”
Saif’s CREVENTIC debut would prove more poignant than he expected. Part of an international field boasting more than 30 different nationalities, Saif, somehow, was one of only two Emirati drivers competing at the 2021 Hankook 24H DUBAI. The other was three-time event winner, Khaled Al Qubaisi. Were that not enough, Saif was sharing the #989 MRS GT-Racing Porsche 911-II Cup with Jeroen Bleekemolen, also a three-time Hankook 24H DUBAI winner.
Pressure? Actually, no. Indeed, what better tutor for his maiden 24-hour race than two of the event’s three record holders…?
“I’m very proud of Khaled Al Qubaisi. He’s one of our role models. He’s won the [Hankook] 24H DUBAI, and we want to carry on the journey.
“The first lesson I learnt from [Jeroen] is that you have to be patient during an endurance race. You have to learn from another’s mistakes. And that worked well. I remember, at one point, I was 4th. The 2nd and 3rd [entrants], they had already lapped me, but I was just behind them. And I could see them, fighting for position. I could have joined that fight but I remembered what Jeroen told me, so I held back. Then at the last corner, they both went off, and I was past both of them. That could have been 2nd place! That taught me, with endurance, how important it is to keep out of trouble.”
Consistency on the TRD stages, plus invaluable lessons learned from Jeroen, meant Saif finished an impressive 3rd in-class on his Hankook 24H DUBAI debut in 2021. With his first 24H SERIES podium already pocketed, and his competitive spark re-ignited, Saif was back in the #989 Porsche just five months later alongside Jos Verstappen prodigy, Thierry Vermeulen for the Hankook 12H HOCKENHEIMRING. Saif’s first motor race outside the Middle East.
By then, changes were already afoot. Though the official team launch would have to wait until the end of the year, February 2021 marked the debut – nominally, at least – of Abu Dhabi’s ‘RABDAN Motorsport.’
“When I started in motorsport, I wanted to do something to represent the UAE and encourage more national drivers. It’s a great shame that we have two of the best circuits, and there are a lot of local events happening there, but we don’t have a lot of UAE national drivers or teams competing internationally. That’s why RABDAN Motorsport exists.
“ ‘Rabdan’ is the horse of the grandfather of Sheikh Zayed, and it’s a very celebrated breed in the UAE. Coincidentally, when I named my racing team, the place where I live changed its name to ‘Rabdan City.’ So it really came together at the right time! Now, wolves and horses. It’s all part of our DNA!”
Ironically, Hockenheim 2021 proved an invaluable, if painful, lesson for Abu Dhabi’s newest racing outfit. Though MRS GT-Racing led its class after the first hour, a rare mistake from Vermeulen sent the #989 Porsche into the barriers at turn one, and back to its pitbox for 90 minutes-worth of repairs. Further misfortune struck Vermuelen later that afternoon when the #989 Porsche – now without its left-front headlamp – made contact with an unsighted David Gostner in the MP Racing Mercedes-AMG GT3. Despite the Dutchman’s best efforts to get the 911 back to the pits, and adding insult to impact, the right rear suspension couldn’t take the strain, and Vermuelen was once again fired into the barriers, this time while exiting turn seven.
The win was gone, though patience and a quieter run the following day meant MRS GT-Racing, complete with ‘RABDAN’ sponsorship decals, did at least manage to finish 6th in-class.
“A lot of people think the sun is always shining. But they don’t know the struggles we have getting people to ‘join the fight’: “You’re driving for 24 hours? You’re crazy!” So many people do not understand that it’s the passion that drives me.”
Three months after his high-speed shunt at the following round in Barcelona, Saif was back in the UAE, pulling the silks off the first, fully-RABDAN-branded Porsche 911 GT3 Cup at the team’s official launch ceremony in Dubai. Just a few weeks later, and now partnered with Germany’s ID Racing, RABDAN Motorsport was lining up for its maiden Hankook 24H DUBAI in January 2022, with Saif on driver detail alongside teammates – and countrymen – Salem Alketbi, Fahad Alzaabi, Helal Almazrouei, and Saeed Almheiri. Ironically in-keeping with ‘RABDAN’s previous 24H SERIES outing in Barcelona though, the Dubai weekend did not get off to the best of starts…
“In our first test at the [Hankook] 24H DUBAI, we had a big crash, and the car was totally gone. And that meant I had only 48 hours to arrange a car. It was a disaster!
“I managed to convince one of our sponsors to ‘pay now,’ to buy a car, and the other sponsor would pay them back their share in installments. It took three hours to arrange, and there was so much pressure. But we somehow managed it, and we brought the other car down that same night in time for Free Practice.”
Impressively, despite this being the first 24-hour event for Alketbi, Alzaabi, and Almazrouei, RABDAN was already up to 3rd in the 992-PRO class after the first six hours, though the sheer pace of The Netherlands’ Team GP-Elite – which went on to take a 1-2 in-class – and series staples Red Camel-Jordans.nl and FACH AUTO TECH meant the Emirati team had slid back to 5th come half-distance.
Lady Luck was clearly reticent to strike down the event’s first all-Emirati driver line-up since 2017 at its home event, and it was instead 4th-placed FACH AUTO TECH that suffered terminal drivetrain issues just five hours from home.
“We just kept pushing, we didn’t make any mistakes – okay, we had a couple of penalties – but, to finish? Around 93 cars? And to finish 4th [in-class]? Whoa! It is something that really touched my heart!”
One week later, the newly learnt-lesson to protect the car paid dividends once again when Saif, Alketbi and Almheiri finished 2nd in-class at the Hankook 6H ABU DHABI. RABDAN Motorsport’s first podium as a team had arrived on home soil, no less.
Perhaps it was this that spurred his determination. Perhaps dealing with adversity at Hockenheim and Barcelona in 2021. Or maybe his first taste of championship silverware back in 2016. Either way, it’s difficult to doubt Saif’s genuine enthusiasm to make a success, both of his team and his career as an Emirati driver on the global stage. A sentiment that’s proven as our conversation begins wrapping up: an ID Racing engineer, having slipped into the motorhome, nods in Saif’s direction letting him know that a post-session debrief is about to start. Gentleman that he is, Saif answers our final question before heading back to the garage, donning a new, more studious expression as he goes.
On the hunt.
Sadly, Barcelona would prove as fruitful to Saif Al Ameri in 2022 as it did in 2021, recurrent gearbox issues grounding the Porsche to a halt during the opening stages and twice more during the final hour. Admittedly, his final 24H SERIES outing of the year – on pseudo home turf at the inaugural Hankook 12H KUWAIT – yields a hard-earned 4th in-class (2nd of the 992-AM runners) for Saif, Olivier Dons, and Enrico Fernando Fulgenzi, minus an unfortunate brush with eventual race winner, CP Racing. Granted, the Hankook 24H DUBAI, as the team has already experienced, will be a longer, more challenging, and altogether more taxing prospect in 2023, and beyond. Success is far from a guarantee.
It’s the goal though. One Saif Al Ameri will want RABDAN Motorsport to accomplish, should they too one day wish to walk with wolves.
You can also check out this article in our digital magazine for the 2023 Hankook 6H ABU DHABI.