RIYADH: One of the ongoing goals of the FIA is to open the world of motorsport through policies that promote equality, diversity and inclusion.
This is the core mission of FIA President Ben Sulayem and his team, who want to ensure that opportunities are provided for as many people as possible, regardless of gender, faith, origin and financial background. A key target is to increase regional competitiveness and double motorsport participation by 2025.
One of the platforms to promote this mission has been the Dakar Rally, currently taking place in Saudi Arabia and considered one of the most popular motorsport events in the world.
The event has attracted a record 603 competitors, including 73 T1 crews, two T2s, 47 lightweight prototype T3s, 46 T4 SSVs, 56 trucks, 76 Dakar Classic cars and 13 Dakar classic trucks.
There are competitors from 68 nations, which includes entries in the motorcycle class. France has the most with 143 representatives, followed by 83 from Spain and 75 from the Netherlands. But there are entrants from South America, Africa, Australia, North America, Europe, the Middle East and several Asian countries including China, India, Japan and Kyrgyzstan.
There were 150 rookie competitors in the grueling opening round of the FIA World Rally-Raid Championship for the first time, and 54 women taking part, including 20 in the Dakar Classic and five female-only race crews.
Ben Sulayem and Robert Reid, FIA deputy president for sport, were greeted by Prince Khalid bin Sultan Al-Abdullah Al-Faisal, chairman of the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation, when they arrived for a rest-day visit in Riyadh. The duo took a tour of the bivouac and met many of the leading crews, some of the younger competitors and female entrants.
Many Saudi participants
“Everywhere you look in the Riyadh bivouac you see diversity both in terms of technology and sustainability but more importantly diversity of culture, age and gender,” said Ben Sulayem.
“It is really pleasing to see young drivers both male and female being given a chance. It is also encouraging to see the number of Saudi nationals, particularly young women, playing key roles in the Dakar Rally organization and other motorsport disciplines not just as drivers and co-drivers but as project managers and engineers and many other roles.
“Motorsport has given them an opportunity and is an accurate reflection of the positive change which is taking place in the Kingdom and aligns very much with the FIA policy on equality, diversity and inclusion.”
Reid commented: “We’ve been walking around the bivouac, meeting some of the competitors, seeing two Saudi women competing alongside many other women, some very young competitors as well. There are teams like South Racing that are introducing academy programs to bring on competitors, but not just competitors, engineers, mechanics as well, from different areas of the world, from diverse backgrounds. And this is really what we need to see if we want to meet our target to doubling motorsport participation.”
The diverse nature of the Dakar has been highlighted over recent years and 2023 is no exception.
For example, 18-year-old Eryk Goczal is taking part in the Dakar for the first time as a member of the Cobant-Energylandia Rally Team, alongside his father Marek and uncle Michal in a three-car team. The rookie created history during the first week when he became the youngest-ever winner of a stage on the Dakar. The Pole currently holds third place in the T4 category, has won two stages and is well-placed to challenge for overall honors this week.
Likewise, talented young American Seth Quintero is taking part in the T3 category, driving a Can-Am Maverick X3 as part of the Red Bull Off-Road Junior Team USA presented by BF Goodrich. Last year, he created history by winning a record 11 stages on the Dakar and currently lies third in his class, about an hour behind the leader with six stages still to run. He already has one stage win under his belt this time.
Rise of female drivers
Female drivers have an impressive record on the Dakar and a long history of success. Germany’s Jutta Kleinschmidt rewrote the history books way back in 2001 when she became the first woman ever to win the event outright in a Mitsubishi Pajero, and women now compete across all the classes.
This year, the current Extreme E champion Cristinia Gutierrez is taking part as a member of the Red Bull Can-Am Factory Team and lies fourth in T3 at the rest day. She is also the highest-placed of all the female drivers in the general classification.
Germany’s Annett Fischer and Swedish co-driver Annie Seel are a fine fifth of the W2RC entrants in the same class in their X-raid Yamaha, while former FIA Bajas T3 world champion Dania Akeel is ninth after fighting back from an accident last week. UAE-based all-rounder Aliyyah Koloc is three places further behind in her Buggyra Racing entry.
Mashael Al-Obaidan was the first Saudi female to be issued with a competition license and is also competing in the T3 category, where she is currently the fifth classified female behind Gutierrez, Anya Van Loon, Fischer and Camelia Liparoti. The Can-Am pilot has been a regular on the FIA World and Middle East Baja Cup scene and is aiming for a top 20 finish in her class.
Meanwhile, in the T4 category, WRC star and Extreme E driver Molly Taylor is making waves in cross-country rallying as well. The Australian has also overcome a first week accident to hold seventh among the W2RC contenders in her class. Van Loon from the Netherlands has followed her husband Erik into the sport and is running well in the T3 category heading into the second week.