In 2021, the FIA launched Rally Star, a global talent detection program aiming to find the next Rally champions. The program starts with local selections, then six Continental Finals will each contribute one driver to join the FIA Rally Star team. Besides the winning driver from each continent, the six best female drivers will compete in an additional Women’s Final for one to come out on top and join the FIA Rally Star team. The FIA Rally Star team will conduct a training program in 2023, with the opportunity to compete in Junior WRC in 2024 season.
From March 18 to 20, the United Arab Emirates hosted the second Continental Final of the FIA Rally Star – the Middle East and North African (MENA) Final. 23-year-old Jordanian driver Farah Zakaria joined the European joint-winners Maja Hallén Fellenius (Sweden) and Katie Milner (United Kingdom) to head into the Women’s Final later this year in North America. We talked to Farah after the MENA Final, here is what she has to say about her 17 years of racing.
© All photos provided by Farah Zakaria
In Farah Zakaria’s childhood, there was the influence of a racing father that naturally led her onto the path of motorsport. At the same time, not coming from a place where it is easy for kids to participate in a karting championship, Farah became an icon to encourage participation in motorsport. Now, as the representative from the Middle East and North Africa Final to go into the Women’s Final, Farah is about to take the biggest leap in her career and at the same time, inspire even more to follow her path.
Farah’s father Khaled Zakaria has been in karting and rallying for many years. He is one of the most successful Arab navigators in the history of the Middle East Rally Championship (MERC). He has been racing in MERC since 1986, and has won 7 rallies in the Championship, including five rallies in 2001 (Jordan, Qatar, Dubai, Bahrain and Syria) as the co-driver of the current FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem. It is only natural for Farah to grow an interest in motorsport as she has always been around the rallies. “We grew up basically where he was racing. I was always in the overhaul with him going to his rallies and races. So I’ve always been involved in motorsports. When I was 6 years old, I stepped into a go-kart for the first time and it all started from there. In 2007, I became the youngest and only female driver to have won the Jordanian Karting Championship.”
It is easy to step into one go-kart, it is difficult to keep climbing up the ladder if there are no ladders around built for young kids. Unlike in Europe where many national and international karting championships for kids are around for young people to go develop their skills, Farah didn’t grow up around those options. But at least her talent was recognized, and she took advantage of it to become a pioneer. “In Jordan, motorsport was not really a big thing for young people. I was the youngest to start racing. I remember doing a formation lap at the beginning just to show people that there are kid talents in the sport. I was also a showcase that as long as you have the full protections on, it’s safe for young people to drive. I was able to encourage parents to take their kids to participate in such a sport.”
Farah’s dream for motorsport also didn’t just stop on four wheels. She has been riding motorcross since she was 12 years old, again despite not having a national championship to grow up in. “There are not any academies here in Jordan for motorcross, so I’ve been doing it on my own with my friends. But I heard that there are going to be some championships set up in Jordan this year or next year. I’m prepared to take part and I really look forward to it.”
Before the selection of Rally Star, Farah hasn’t had a lot of experience rallying even though she grew up around it. However, she has been navigating for her father who is now FIA Clerk of the Course for Jordan Baja. “Rallying is definitely different from everything I’ve raced before. But I’ve always been around it. Jordan Baja was in February this year. I was with my dad navigating and reading the roadbook. So I know about how to rally.”
Not only was rallying herself relatively new to Farah, but also was the crosskart used in the selection completely new to her. “It was actually my first experience sitting in a crosskart that weekend at Yas Marina. We do not have this type of crosskart in Jordan. I had prepared for the selection in go-karts and on something similar to an ATV. It was completely new for me. My team and I didn’t have the chance to experience it beforehand. Learning how to drive it for the first time and getting used to it was amazing actually. What was easier for me though was that it was driving on a motorbike engine. I already knew how the gear worked, how to downshift or upshift. But the handling of the crosskart on dirt was the first time for me.”
In the 3-day challenge at Yas Marina, with an unfamiliar crosskart, Farah won over the jury with her progress. “The first day was only a training day for everyone to get used to the crosskart. The second and third days were the ones that counted. The jury was there to see your performance. On the third day, it wasn’t just driving that was judged. We were also in fitness reaction tests, interviews, and so on. It was a program to find an actual star, not just a driver. Even though I had the disadvantage of not driving a crosskart before, how I progressed in the crosskart, the way I talked in the interviews, how I performed in the reaction tests, those all built up and led to the Women’s Final.”
All the judges are important people from the motorsport world, including WRC drivers. It was really beneficial sitting with them, talking to them, and learning from them. It was interesting to see how they interviewed us and how they reacted.
Besides the opportunity to compete in Rally Star Women’s Final, Farah is also looking to further her racing career in off-road upon her graduation from the university. This is of course where the question of money comes in. “I’m looking for a training camp in Europe to prepare for the Women’s Final. In June, hopefully I’ll be graduating from the university in Germany. I’ll be focusing more on motorsports then. In Jordan, there are not many funds or sponsors available when it comes to motorsports. Not much attention is paid to motorsport overall. But I’ve been looking in Arabic-speaking countries like the UAE. There could be some potential in funding my career. I’m trying to build that athlete and racer character in order to facilitate raising the sponsorships. Finding sponsors is difficult, but difficulties are fun things.”
Later this month, the African Final will take place at Zwartkops Raceway in Pretoria, South Africa. Stay tuned for further installments in our Rally Star Drivers’ Series.