JEDDAH, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia | 15 December 2021: Two female drivers from Saudi Arabia will make history next month when they compete on the Dakar Rally for the first time. Dania Akeel and Mashael AlObaidan are set to tackle one of the most challenging rally events in world, as they navigate 9,000km across deserts and mountains in their home country.
When the 44th edition of the Dakar Rally commences on 1 January, 2022 it will be a momentous occasion to have two women drivers with Saudi competition licences in the starting line-up and marks a significant milestone for both motorsport in the region and the changing face of Saudi Arabia.
Akeel and AlObaidan will tackle the famous Rally-Raid in the T3 category, both driving South Racing-prepared Can-Am Mavericks. They will race the 135km/h buggies in distances of up to 600km a day in extreme conditions across a gruelling 12-day schedule.
As the first female drivers to be granted competition licences from the Saudi Automobile & Motorcycle Federation (SAMF), they understand the significance of their achievement and are proud to represent their nation in a sport they are passionate about.
“To drive on this famous event in Saudi is a dream come true,” says AlObaidan. “I’m doing what I love and I’m receiving so much support from people who say that what I am doing is inspiring a lot of people.”
Last March, AlObaidan won a round of the FIA World Cup for Cross Country Bajas which took place in Al Sharqiyah, in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. She also entered the challenging Baja España Aragón in August and finished seventh overall amongst an international field. Those results prove the 33-year-old has the credentials to be competitive on the up-coming Dakar.
“When I finished seventh on the hardest round in the series, against competitors who had been competing in the sport for more than 15 years, I knew I could do this,” says AlObaidan.
“I soon realised that I was unlocking doors and breaking down barriers with my achievements. We are paving the way for females to understand the journey we are taking and to join us. At the beginning I didn’t know what people would say, but when I started to post pictures of myself on dirt bikes and then rallying, I was shocked. People loved it. Females loved it and I’ve not had one hate comment on social media.
“People have their opinion and lots may say that motorsport is for men, not only in Saudi Arabia, but globally, but we have actually come a long way and all I’m getting is love and support.”
Competing against AlObaidan is another 33-year-old woman who originally started out racing bikes. Dania Akeel has impressed on her transition to T3 buggies, especially as she spent last year recovering from serious injuries following a crash on the track in Bahrain. Akeel fractured her spine and also suffered multiple pelvic breaks. It’s a testament to her perseverance and passion that she was able to quickly return to competitive action.
“Those months after the crash were painful, but in some ways I was lucky because I didn’t need surgery,” says Akeel. “In motorsport you accept the risks and ultimately you have to make a choice. I wasn’t put off racing, it just gave me more respect for the possibilities [of an accident].”
Following her recovery in 2020, this year Akeel became the overall champion of the FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Bajas in T3 which was an incredible achievement given that it was her first season of competition in the category.
“As a rookie I wasn’t focused on the stage times,” says Akeel. “I could see that if I was consistent and worked hard to finish the races, it could get me enough points for the win.”
After clinching the title in her maiden season, taking on the Dakar will be the biggest challenge in her motorsport career to date and Akeel is relishing the opportunity to demonstrate her talent on the biggest stage of the year.
“You have got to respect the Dakar,” she says. “It’s the longest rally on the calendar and Saudi is an incredible location. You can cross 200km and the landscape, terrain and weather can change three or four times. There are multiple layers to a race like Dakar and you need to be both physically and mentally fit and have a strong relationship with your co-driver.”
Akeel became the first female from her country to be granted a competition licence from the Saudi Automobile & Motorcycle Federation (SAMF) when she took part in motorbike races at the Dubai Autodrome and the Bahrain International Circuit in 2019. In recognition of her historic achievement, Akeel was recently named as one of the Top 50 most influential women in Saudi Arabia by Arabian Business magazine.
“Every person can have an impact on their immediate generation and whether I was the first female holder of a competition licence or the 1,000th, it’s not so much about who that person is, it’s the fact things happen in life that hadn’t happened before. Knowing that things change will stay with me forever,” says Akeel.
“You have to take chances when they are available and the chances I am taking now are available to every Saudi woman. I feel very supported in making these decisions. There is a lot of energy in the country at the moment and the work [with Vision 2030] to build the future has already created a wave of stimulation that I won’t forget.”
Both Akeel and AlObaidan can be considered trailblazers not only in a rapidly-changing society but in a sport that has traditionally been male-dominated. The two Saudi racers have also sought the advice and wisdom of a former Dakar competitor who truly rocked the establishment when she became the first female driver to win the world’s toughest and longest rally.
“The Dakar is one of the biggest adventures you can do on this planet,” says Jutta Kleinschmidt, winner of the event in 2001. “It’s a huge competition and it’s great to be a part of it. Racing in it is still the dream of many people and it’s super important for the country [of Saudi Arabia] to support the women competing.
“I spoke to both the Saudi female competitors last year and I think it was right they did some races beforehand to get more experience. They are both super talented and it helps as they came from bikes – like I did – to understand the navigation skills required.
“It’s fantastic for them because although the Dakar will be much more difficult, they are young and have big potential. Plus it’s really important for the country – just imagine a woman from Saudi competing at the front and how amazing that would be.”
Kleinschmidt first competed on the Dakar in the bike category in 1988, before entering the event another 15 times – winning the overall car class with Mitsubishi in 2001. She has also finished on the podium on three other occasions. She says the enduring appeal of the Dakar is the fact the event is so challenging.
“When I was young I was fascinated by motorcycles, adventure, competition and technology and the Dakar is such a difficult event, that motivated me to compete in it. I found the Dakar would throw-up scenarios you couldn’t plan for, such as a flood leading to a 1,000km detour or having to change the driveshaft in extreme heat. It was problem solving difficult situations which is what I loved about it. Plus the competition element made it exciting, because ultimately, you want to win,” says Kleinschmidt.
Today, the 59-year-old is the President of the Cross-Country Rally Commission at the FIA and works with former rally legend Michele Mouton in the FIA Commission for Women in Motorsport which works to identify and promote the next generation of female racers. Kleinschmidt says the landscape for female participation in motorsport is improving, but still needs initiatives, such as the regulation in the new Extreme E series where every team must have a driver from each gender. She believes this policy will increase female participation in the Dakar in the years to come.
“When I first started in rallying, I found the guys were very helpful and friendly until you are faster than them, then that causes problems,” says Kleinschmidt smiling. “They start to fight a little bit harder against you. But in Extreme E we see the opposite as the men need to support their team-mates if they want to win together.”
Last year Dania Akeel and Mashael AlObaidan experienced the Dakar on the side of the road with Kleinschmidt to get an experience of the event and understand the navigation required. AlObaidan also participated on a stage in 2019 in preparation for the main event.
“What I love about Jutta is that she is always working on something because she feels it’s her mission or purpose to do it,” said Akeel. “I respect her so much and the advice she gave was invaluable. She told me the key to her winning the Dakar was that she focused on her own driving and didn’t pay attention to her competitors because you are not wheel-to-wheel with them. Ultimately as a driver you need to beat your own limits and surpass your own capabilities – that’s how you gain speed and improve.
“We didn’t speak too much about gender because we are all racers. It’s about focusing on the sport, what we need to do as drivers as – whether we are male or female – the action points are the same.”
The 44th Dakar commences in January in the stunning Ha’il desert, before taking competitors to Riyadh and after crossing the Kingdom, the showpiece Rally-Raid heads to the shores of the beautiful Red Sea and will finish at the historic port city of Jeddah.
Both Akeel and AlObaidan have been training non-stop in preparation for this historic occasion, either on the dunes behind the wheel of a buggy, or in the case of AlObaidan, running up the staircase of the one of the tallest towers in the country in a test of strength and stamina.
“You need to keep yourself in great shape and constantly drink water, but sometimes during driving I am so focused I don’t think about anything else in life and forget to drink,” says AlObaidan. “The feeling of driving at speed and enjoying the environment is amazing. During my training I lose any sense of time. One of the reasons I fell in love with rallying, as well as the speed and excitement is the nature. Every region of the Dakar in Saudi has a different terrain and whether I’m racing, camping or free-diving, nature inspires me.
“It’s important to control your emotions and energy in an endurance event like the Dakar,” adds AlObaidan. “It’s 12 days so you need to think of each stage as a separate entity and don’t worry about the next day. My goal is to finish this first event and with the support of South Racing I know I’ll have the best vehicle and the best mechanics on-hand.”
January’s Dakar Rally will be the opening round of the brand-new FIA World Rally-Raid Championship. Ahead of all of the competitors are stages running to nearly 10,000km which will require skilful off-road navigation. For the two Saudi women drivers, competing on this event for the first time, it will be a historic milestone that will inspire both the current and future generations.
“I’ve been in tough situations before and I’ve been knocked down many times,” says AlObaidan. “But the best way to learn is to understand the journey we take…”
Organised by ASO in conjunction with FIA and SAMF (Saudi Automobile & Motorcycle Federation) and other local authorities, the 44th running of the Dakar Rally will run to nearly 10,000km across the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with stages that will include two loop stages and one marathon stage. The FIA World Rally-Raid Championship is the seventh motorsport discipline under FIA governance and will be promoted by ASO (Amaury Sport Organisation) for the next five years.
For More Details Please Visit https://www.dakar.com/
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