Saudi all-women SHERO Rally Team gears up for Italian Baja, aims for Dakar 2023

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Credit: Shero Rally Team

Saudi Arabia is a country long associated with its abysmal human and women’s rights record, one that has overshadowed its recent motorsport endeavours including welcoming international series like Formula One and the Dakar Rally. Despite this, the Middle Eastern nation has grown more open towards female driving, legalising the act in 2018 and hosting the all-women Rally Jameel in March. As the Dakar Rally returns to Saudi Arabia in 2023, a team consisting of women hopes to take part.

The aspirations of SHERO Rally Team to compete at Dakar have taken the group to the Italian Baja on 7–10 July. Team director Iole De Simone along with sisters Elham and Ebtihal Al-Fahad will pilot Polaris RZR SSVs prepared by rally driver Lorenzo Cenzi and his Jazz Tech operation, with Farida Abdullah, Sue Mead, and Saja Kamal respectively serving as their co-drivers. Italian Baja will be the outfit’s first international competition.

De Simone founded SHERO, a portmanteau of “She” and “Hero”, in 2020; hailing from Italy and an alumna of Stanford University and Harvard Business School Executive Education, she previously worked as a physical education teacher and the sports director for King’s College Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. She signed Dania Akeel and Mashael Alobaidan as the team’s first members and project managers. After a delayed start due to COVID-19, the programme formally launched in December 2020 with the goal of running the 2022 Dakar Rally, though its timetable was later pushed back a year.

Testing took place in late 2020 and 2021 with coaching from FIM Cross-Country champions and Dakar veterans Jacek Czachor and Marek Dabrowski, and the team also attended the Dakar Rally as observers. Akeel entered the Sharqiyah Baja in March 2021 with a Can-Am Maverick prepared by Polish organisation DUUST, becoming the first Saudi woman to run an FIA-sanctioned rally. A year later, SHERO fielded three entries in Rally Jameel: a Ford Bronco for de Simone, a Toyota Prado for Ebtihal Al-Fahad, and a Jeep Grand Cherokee for Elham Al-Fahad. De Simone finished thirteenth overall and seventh in the PT6 class ahead of Ebtihal (fourteenth overall, fifth in PT4) and Elham (thirtieth overall, second in AW8).

SHERO hoped to begin racing outside Saudi Arabia with the Andalucía Rally in June before it was postponed to October due to dangerous weather in Spain. Following the Italian Baja, the team intends to take part at the Rallye du Maroc (1–6 October) and Dubai International Baja (1–3 December) before heading to the Dakar Rally on 31 December–15 January 2023. A desert training session in Abu Dhabi is also planned for 15–20 November.

Other team members include SSV driver and professional boxer/semi-professional footballer Rasha Al Khamis and quad/SSV racer Rose Shaheen. Mead, an American journalist and 2007 inductee into the Off-road Motorsports Hall of Fame who has done Dakar and the Baja 1000 with the legendary Rod Hall, serves as co-manager while thrice Dakar moto podium finisher Franco Picco is the head coach. Kamal, an ex-footballer, doubles as SHERO’s media spokeswoman.

“Shero Women’s Rally Team hopes to break gender barrier in motorsport and smash glass ceiling with the formation of the first female centric rally team and training school in the Middle East region,” reads a statement on the team website. “Not only does Shero advocate for women’s empowerment through motorsport, it is committed to embracing renewable energy and being a national and regional wide ambassador for sustainable energy in motorsport.”

The team is the largest undertaking by female entrants at the Italian Baja since Jutta Kleinschmidt won the 2001 race. A Tuesday press release from the event describes SHERO’s involvement as “an authentic revolution” that gives the team “the opportunity of a perfect training without looking too much at the ranking, having set the goal for the beginning of next year.”

“Results apart, this will be a great show of true courage and determination.”

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Justin is neither a NASCAR nor off-road racer, but he has covered them for The Checkered Flag since 2018.
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