Just getting started: The Al Qubaisi sisters share the podium for the first time
A first double Al Qubaisi podium in F1 Academy: how the two Emirati sisters defied odds to share for the first time a podium in formula racing, both overcoming their own challenges.
The return to the track of the Al Qubaisi sisters - sharing the track again since the 2022 Formula Regional Asian Championship - was one of the most remarkable stories of the inaugural weekend of the F1 Academy championship. Amna and Hamda, 23 and 20, are just not a cool story of two sisters sharing a passion for motor racing: they are two of the most accomplished female racing drivers at F4 level, both with championship ambitions in the brand-new F1-supported series. Their first round at Spielberg, Austria, marked the first time ever they shared a podium in race cars, after overcoming extraordinary challenges ahead of the season. For Amna, it was a spectacular return to the level of competition she deserves: the first ever Arab female racing driver was on a highly positive trajectory since 2019, after a couple of very propaedeutic seasons in Italian F4, where she showed great progression and development - eventually culminating with the historic victory at the Abu Dhabi Trophy round in F4 UAE, where Amna made history and climbed the top step of the podium, on the same weekend of the F1 GP. It was November 2019; a few months later, the global pandemic would put the world to a still, and Amna's racing career suffered a sudden halt, just as she had found her greatest success to date.
In the following years, Amna had outings in F3 Regional machinery, making her debut in the Asian championship, where she would also score points at debut in a massively competitive grid. But her racing plans never went back to a full-season campaign and, even when she returned to Europe for a handful of one-off starts in FRECA, the lack of track time and preparation - in one of the heaviest junior formulae - clearly hampered her chances. Amna Al Qubaisi, though, had never lost her touch: she just needed the right opportunity, with the right time to prepare. And that opportunity came in the form of F1 Academy, as she teamed up with her sister Hamda - a multiple F4 race winner herself - in a power team at MP Motorsport. Pre-season testing had already offered a glimpse of her speed - and fueled her dusty self-confidence. To anyone familiar with her pace in F4 machinery, Amna Al Qubaisi fighting at the top was not too surprising. But, for a young driver too often underestimated, it was firstly important for Amna to prove that to herself once again. And she was back with a vengeance.
Her sister's pre-season, on the other hand, was all but plain sailing. Hamda, the most successful female racer in F4 globally, with 6 wins in the UAE-based F4 series throughout 2020 and 2021 before making the jump to FRECA, was undoubtedly one of the big names on the eve of the inaugural F1 Academy season. Having entered the UAE championship once again with the aim of preparing for the upcoming campaign in the new gen Tatuus T421 car, Hamda proved she belonged to the top-10 in the most competitive F4 field ever. On the last lap of the last race, though, the Emirati had an unfortunate accident that resulted in a nasty accident which left her with a broken wrist. Two months before the start of the new season, Hamda didn't even know if she would be able to return behind the wheel in time, potentially losing on of the biggest opportunities in her career so far. Doctors were suggesting at least a three-month stop. But Hamda Al Qubaisi's recovery is one of the great stories of sporting heroes, that defy all odds to win battles that go beyond the sport itself. Hamda Al Qubaisi, one of the tiniest people in motorsport, has the power of a giant and, after two rough months of hard physical exercises, she was back behind the wheel for pre-season testing. While being in the car was an unbelievable achievement already, she initially struggled. At Le Castellet, though, she found a way to mainly use her other arm - and immediately found pace. Coming into the season opener, she was back on top of the timing sheets in free practice.
"From free practice we already knew we had the pace - I was already half a second or four tenths faster than anyone on the dry", Hamda explained. "That gave me a lot of confidence for the weekend."
But, just as she was tasting a battle for pole position, an engine issue took her out of contention for the first 15-minute session. "Unfortunately in quali I struggled with a technical issue in Q1, and it started to rain, so for Q2 it was difficult for me to understand the conditions - especially since I wasn't out in Q1", she continued. "It just took me time to adapt, and then in my fast lap the red flag came out - it was just a big mess and all the odds were against me at that point." "The worst news was that even with the disqualifications that happened, I still had to start behind them for the 107% rule, as I had not done Q1. So I had to start at the back." As we crossed paths in the paddock before the first race of the season, Hamda summed up her mindset: "I guess it's going to be a recovery drive", always with a smile on her determined face. "I started two races from last - and I'd say they were interesting races", she recalled after the weekend. "In race 1 I made it to P4 on the first lap, that was fun. I made a mistake that cost me a few positions, but in the end I finished P8, which was okay. I'm still disappointed about my mistake" - she added, after a last lap off-track moment when it had started to rain. The first race also showcased Amna's racecraft and ability to charge from the back. "In race one, I started in P8 and gained a few positions, but then there was a big incident I couldn't avoid, which made me go on the gravel and I had to start again from P-last", she summed up. "With the safety car restart, I had a car in front of me which gave a massive gap from the cars ahead, almost a 20 car length gap. I assumed she had a mechanical problem, so I overtook on the straight." One overtaking move after the other, Amna Al Qubaisi recovered from last to sixth. A post-race penalty for a pass under safety car, though, dropped her to eighth. "I finished P6, which was quite good considering I really had a big gap from everybody else. But then I got called up to the stewards and they were telling me it's a safety concern and I got penalized." It would be race 2 in the early afternoon to provide another groundbreaking moment for the Al Qubaisi sisters. "Race 2 was amazing", Amna commented. "I was already confident, we had purple sectors in the first and last sectors - so we were already confident enough to win it. I had a really good start and from there we just pulled away, lap by lap, just started making a gap."
From reverse grid pole position, Amna Al Qubaisi had no competitions and took a dominant lights-to-flag victory, also surviving another rain shower towards the end of the competition. "It started to drizzle and I was very cautious. Thankfully it was the last two or three laps and I didn't lose that P1 position." The 23-year-old held on masterfully and crossed the line to take her first win of the season - and the second of her F4 career. The 20-minute shorter race was also another opportunity to see Hamda making up positions. From last, she gained 10 positions to finish fifth. "In race 2, I charged again, but it was harder this time because the fast cars were ahead of me as well, and I knew it was difficult to get past", Hamda said. "Also, a lot of them were starting on full-new sets, while I was on half-new. So I knew it was going to be hard, but I still managed to push." "In the first lap I was again up to P7, and from there I just made sure to attack and pressure the drivers in front. I was able to do so and I finished P5. For a 20 minute race, it was good! If I had some more minutes, for sure I could easily get a podium." After the Emirati anthem had played on the podium of race 2, the Al Qubaisi sisters were not done yet and made more history in race 3 with a double podium, having started a bit further ahead. "In race 3 I finally started a bit further up: P7", explained Hamda. "I thought okay, now I can go full push. I knew straight away I could get the girls in front - and that's what happened. Already from the third corner I was P3. From there I pressured Nerea and she made a few mistakes, so I was able to get past." "As soon as I got past it was so much easier to drive, because the understeer was less and I pulled the gap straight away, I was catching Marta."
Hamda navigated through the field and went on the hunt for the lead. "It was quite a big gap to Marta, to be able to catch her was difficult but I managed to do it", the younger of the two sisters recalled. "In the last three laps we were fighting: she had a big drop - I don't know if it was the tyre - but she was struggling and I knew I was able to get her, I knew it was my time." After a great duel, Marta Garcia was ultimately able to hold on and won her second race of the weekend. From seventh, Hamda Al Qubaisi was an equally impressive second, having gained over 20 places across the three races. "You know, for how the weekend played out, I didn't want to end with a DNF. So I said I would rather keep it on track. Let's try to fight for sure, but if it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen, at least get a podium", thought the Emirati, who turned her weekend around and at the same time looked at the bigger picture. Just behind her, her sister Amna was once again proving to belong to the podium. "It was amazing", Amna was just as satisfied. "I had more tire mileage than the girls at the front, but I still managed to keep the pace: I went to P4, and then gave my sister room to overtake, didn't fight with her as it didn't make sense. I just followed her through and caught Nerea. As soon as I caught into her slipstream I went for an overtake around the outside - a tough one, but still manageable. From there we started to pull away." "I was starting to catch my sister, but I didn't want her to feel my pressure, so I just made the gap, kept it that way so that she didn't feel threatened." Amna Al Qubaisi and Marta Garcia were the only two drivers to step on the podium twice in Austria. Just once in karting Amna and Hamda had shared a podium before. After the opening round of the 2023 F1 Academy season, though, it feels like it won't remain a one-off event.