Kelly Ann Crane discovers a star in the making at Dubai Autodrome
The word ‘sport’ usually has parents talking sideline plays, team tactics or the questionable ethics of the referee.
Whether personal choice or that of society, it doesn’t usually conjure images of their children taking corners at 90kph or wearing a crash helmet to eat breakfast.
Formula One drivers start karting as soon as they are tall enough to reach the accelerator. And while karting’s fun, if your little sports star is intent on following in the footsteps of Lewis Hamilton he/she better hope dad has a burning desire to see junior on the podium because racing driving isn’t the most popular choice for mums.
The Dubai Autodrome is here to challenge and change the stereotype with First Drive, a tailor made programme for youngsters who are keen to learn the basics behind the wheel.
Go-karts in Dubai have come a long way from the soapbox racer, with Honda engines and lap timers. Kids as young as seven can speed around the Dubai Autodrome’s indoor track, while older kids can take a more powerful kart on the outdoor track with a bridge, tunnel and 17 corners to navigate. Sessions are charged in 15-minute increments and according to some parents, there’s no better sport to teach your children the highest possible standards in discipline. Youngsters from 12 (or big enough to push the peddles) can learn how to shift a manual transmission and navigate a closed course in a Chevy Aveo during the First Drive Experience.
Take Rashid al Dhaheri as a perfect example. While most kids will be looking forward to the Spring holidays, the five-year-old Emirati lad will be training in Europe in a bid to follow in the footsteps of his hero, F1 racing driver Fernando Alonso. While his peers play computer games or watch television after school or at the weekend, Rashid is training under the protective guidance of his father, Ali Al Dhaheri.
Rashid got the bug in 2011, aged just three, after a visit to the Ferrari pit garage during the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix. Mesmerised by the action and adrenalin he told his dad he wanted to be just like Fernando and win races for his country.
Today, wearing a replica race suit of the Spanish two-time world champion when he is out on track, Rashid is making waves in a sport which is gradually being noticed in the UAE.
Competition and test driver Michael Prophet, 59, works at the Dubai Autodrome and says the First Drive classes for children are becoming more and more popular every month.
The aim of the course is to give youngsters a first taste of speed in a car in a safe, secure and controlled environment.
“As long as they can reach the pedals, they can give it a go,” said the British FIA-trained driving instructor. “There is no age limit. It’s a course to encourage good habits and behavior behind a wheel while having fun at the same time.”
Prophet confirmed it is usually the course which will give kids the “bug” for racing.
“It’s true some parents don’t believe driving cars around a track constitutes a sport,” admits the former British driver. “But if they could see the levels of fitness, commitment and the unbelievable discipline it takes to control a vehicle while driving it to its limits I think they would change their opinion.”
And while driving a car at high speeds around a dedicated track does take a high level of dedication, Prophet also believes learning to drive cars properly can teach a youngster much more than clutch control.
“Understanding control of a vehicle and awareness of others on the very dangerous public roads is something no parent should sniff at,” he says. “Some things can’t be taught on the football field on tennis court.
Driving courses take children to new levels of discipline. Hand/eye co-ordination and being able to use the hands and feet to produce a smooth and controlled drive is a physical skill but teaching a child that they are adults with responsibilities, something they must grasp very early on when behind the wheel of a car, will help them in many other aspects of their life.”
First Drive gives each child a minimum of 60 minutes tuition as well as tips, technique and a taste for the fast life.
“The courses are so beneficial and we have children who complete one session who visibly appreciate the skills and concentration that driving demands,” said Prophet recalling a number of memorable students.
Who knows, it may even help them appreciate the pressure mum’s under when doing the school or soccer run at peak rush hour. “I never knew it was so difficult. I appreciate my mums driving now,” were the words of one 12-year-old lad who completed the course this year.
The late, great Ayrton Senna once said “racing is in my blood” and little Rashid now believes the same.
While most kids are fussing over Playstations or parked in front of a television, Rashid is training hard. Before events he goes for regular afternoon training sessions and will spend all day at the track working on different aspects of his driving.
Few children have access to facilities and coaching which could one day see them on a podium after a winning-F1 race. Those in Dubai do.
So look out for the tiny fellow, with the huge grin and big heart wearing the bright red Alonso replica race suit, and take note of the name - Rashid Al Dhaheri.
In a couple of decades, we could see his name emblazoned on the side of a F1 Ferrari on the grid in the capital’s Grand Prix.
Dh1,800 for two children for one week. Dh 995 for one child for one week. Call 04 3678745, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.dubaiautodrome.com for more or to book.