The breakthrough

24th June 2019

This year, Reema Al Juffali became the first Saudi woman to compete in motor racing – just months after her country lifted a ban on women driving. So how did she do it?

Words by Erin Baker

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There are two ways, it transpires, to become a successful racing driver. One is to start racing karts as a child, enjoy plentiful support from family and friends, grow up living and breathing cars, progress through the national ranks, encouraged at every stage by town and country, and finally, get into a championship series.

The other way is to have grown up female in Saudi Arabia when women were banned from driving. You grow up not knowing what it’s like to hold a steering wheel, have no knowledge about cars, then head to the US to study, think to yourself, “Motorsport looks fun,” and bingo, you’re making your debut in Formula 4.

Bonkers, eh? True story, though. This April, Reema Al Juffali, a 27-year-old Saudi woman, made the headlines by competing in the British F4 Championship at Brands Hatch, less than a year after her home country lifted its ban on female drivers.

I was so used to the F1 format of racing, where the leading car generally wins the race. In endurance racing there seemed to be more variables to play with – it was unpredictable.

Everything about Al Juffali’s approach to motorsport is unconventional, but miraculously it appears to be working. It wasn’t the glitter of Formula 1, for example, that first attracted her to the sport, but the hard slog of the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race. “I thought there was a lot more strategy involved,” she says, applying typical intellectual rigour to her approach (she studied International Affairs at Northeastern University, Boston). “I was so used to the F1 format of racing, where the leading car generally wins the race. In endurance racing there seemed to be more variables to play with – it was unpredictable.” She also liked the fact that the average age of endurance racing drivers was higher than in F1; it made the whole sport seem more accessible to such a late-comer.

Then, of course there’s the small matter of her homeland’s attitude towards women driving cars. Al Juffali is back in Jeddah these days, where she drives a VW Golf GTI (“It’s a fun car,” she says, “but I do like my classics. I’m a big fan of 1960s Mustangs, Porsches and Mercs”). Just a few years ago, “going racing” wasn’t remotely on her radar. “I had no aspirations [to race]. I didn’t grow up around a racing culture and at the time women couldn’t drive in Saudi Arabia. And I’m now representing my country as a female racing driver. Who would have guessed?” So how did she feel when the Saudi ban was lifted? “It was a moment I’d always looked forward to,” she says. “I knew all the roads and how to get places, so it felt natural. But being behind the wheel for the first time at home… I couldn’t help but smile. It was a great feeling.”

Women driving in Saudi is undoubtedly something new to all and, like everything new, it will take some time to sink in

Despite the apparent liberation, I wonder if women are still nervous about driving in Saudi Arabia, and whether there is still opposition. “Saudi women have come a long way and I’m very proud of their accomplishments,” she says. “Women driving in Saudi is undoubtedly something new to all and, like everything new, it will take some time to sink in,” she adds diplomatically.

Al Juffali has built a career on the strange foundation of more disadvantages than your average female racing driver – not just the lack of driving experience on the road, but also, no background in karts. She is sanguine about this, and argues that while her competitors on the track might have had more experience, she can “learn everything from scratch and build on it in the best way possible”. 

Like all the female racing drivers I’ve ever spoken to, she doesn’t believe there’s an inherent physical disadvantage for her as a woman in racing. “Many female racers have proven that [there is no physical disadvantage] already. The disadvantage women face in motorsport is opportunity,” she says. “Inside a car, men and women are no different. I really believe that as long as women have been given the same opportunity from the start of their training, we will see them in F1.”

I’m a motorhead at heart - which I find inexplicably comforting

If optimism could secure you a podium finish, Al Juffali would walk away with top honours at every race.

Finally, I ask this newly minted petrolhead for her feelings on the growth of Formula E and electric motorsport. Does a fresh pair of eyes mean a fresh approach to the industry? “I love the fact that Formula E races are all on street circuits, but I’m a motorhead at heart,” she says – which I find inexplicably comforting.

Reema Al Juffali will be appearing at Goodwood Festival of Speed, which takes place July 4 – 7 2019

This article was taken from the Summer 2019 edition of the Goodwood Magazine.

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