Sports / F1

Pakistani on track to Formula 1 glory

By Agence France-Presse in Islamabad, Pakistan (China Daily) Updated: 2016-03-31 07:42

He would be the first from his nation to compete in the sport, but faces many challenges, including a heavy financial burden

Saad Ali is in good position to become Pakistan's first Formula 1 driver, a seemingly impossible target in a country with no race tracks and where all sport sponsorship money is poured into the national obsession - cricket.

The 28-year-old faces significant hurdles before he can become one of 22 elite drivers at the pinnacle of motor sport, but a decade after his "clueless" beginning as a college dropout hooked on racing, he is edging toward his target.

 Pakistani on track to Formula 1 glory

Saad Ali shows off his awards at the Yas Marina Formula 1 circuit in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on Monday. Ali is in position in the race to become Pakistan's first Formula 1 driver, a seemingly impossible goal in a country with no training facilities and where most sponsorship money is poured in to cricket. Masroor Gilani / Agence France-Presse

"As a kid I was always interested in cars, but there was no racing in Pakistan, it was not even on television," he said.

He competed in the Formula Gulf 1000 series in 2014, reaching the podium to take third place twice in one weekend in Abu Dhabi.

Describing that race as a "big steppingstone", he adds it was "proof to me that this is something that I could pursue and achieve".

Now he must conquer the Formula 3, GP3 and GP2 classes, seen as steppingstones on the road to Formula 1.

"Getting there is extremely tough, extremely hard, extremely competitive," he said.

It is also expensive.

Pakistani on track to Formula 1 glory

"I have been racing by myself for the country without support, flying the Pakistani Flag on circuits making a name for racing (here)" says Ali, who last year was only able to compete in go-karting's 2F2F Endurance Grand Prix in Pakistan due to the sheer costs of taking part in motor sport.

Currently, he uses the money earned from his job at information technology company Swiftclick, and his documentary-film work to fund his obsession.

He has more races later in 2016. But estimates he will need around $2 million in sponsorship over the next three or four years to achieve his dream of racing alongside the likes of Sebastien Vettel or Lewis Hamilton.

"For motor sports you need that expertise, you need those mechanics, you need facilities, infrastructure, you need that architecture to actually perform," he said.

Right now, he has to make do with a simulator at his home, where he practices his maneuvers.

The odds of international successes are against him. "There are very few people in the world who make a living from driving racing cars - and even fewer in F1," Matthew Marsh, a leading F1 TV commentator and former racer.

The absence of any sort of official motor racing in Pakistan beyond go-karting means he is unlikely to find the deep wallets he needs there.

But Ali said building tracks would not only boost the economy but help save the lives of restless young Pakistanis who take their need for speed underground.

One 22-year-old racer who asked to remain anonymous told AFP that races take place in Pakistan's major cities in the dead of night despite accidents and police chases.

"There have been accidents, some really bad in which people have died, but this thing goes on as you cannot restrict youth," he said.

"If there is a proper track, the risk of accidents would be minimized and the passion of young people for racing could be groomed," he said.

(China Daily 03/31/2016 page10)

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