Reema Juffali, the Saudi racer starting her own team: 'It's about sharing – it's not my story anymore'

Sports Car News

Reema Juffali has made waves previously by simply being a Saudi Arabian woman in racing but now, with her own team, she is aiming to really change the status quo

Juffali lead

Juffali is aiming to change the status quo in racing and help drive change in Saudi Arabia

Theeba

She broke new ground as Saudi Arabia’s first female racing driver, but that was never going to be enough for ambitious Reema Juffali. Following a tough apprenticeship on the UK’s single-seater nursery slopes, the 30-year-old switched to GT racing for this year – but as of this coming weekend, not simply as a driver alone. Juffali is pressing on to chase her dream of one day making it to Le Mans, and on her own terms, by launching her own race team. The pioneering spirit is compelling, especially as she appears to be surrounding herself with exactly the right people she’ll need to achieve her considerable goals.

Today, the wraps come off Theeba Motorsport. At the weekend, Juffali and her friend, coach and experienced team-mate Adam Christodoulou will line up on the grid in their Mercedes-AMG GT3 EVO at Paul Ricard for the second round of the International GT Open series. The pair already have double Pro-Am class wins under their belts from the opening two races at Estoril where they raced for well-established SPS Automotive. To repeat that feat under the Theeba banner at the first time of asking would be some achievement.

Based at Silverstone, it’s a one-car team for now and boasts familiar top-level guidance beyond Christodoulou’s GT3 expertise. Juffali reveals 1999 British Formula 3 Champion Marc Hynes – also formerly a close advisor to Lewis Hamilton – “is on this project to help me bring this to life”, while John Booth – Hynes’s old Manor Motorsport boss and the man who led the Virgin/Marussia F1 team – has a consultancy role. Both bring obvious credibility.

Reema Adam 2

Adam Christodoulou is partnering Juffali in the Pro-Am class of International GT Open

Theeba

“I wouldn’t have started this team if I didn’t feel I was in good hands, if I didn’t have the right guidance,” Juffali tells Motor Sport. “Coming into the sport three or four years ago to learn the sport as a driver, and now coming in as someone who is investing, it has definitely opened my eyes. It is exciting and I’m glad to have the right people on board.”

But she’s been a GT driver for all of seven months (her first GT3 test was only in November last year). Isn’t Juffali trying to run before she can properly walk? “The easier route would definitely have been to continue on my journey and learn GTs with an established team,” she concedes. “But I’ve done things, and will continue to do things, by challenging myself. Plus I want to bring people along on the journey, and this team does that.”

By that she’s referring to the altruistic higher purpose that is driving Theeba. Juffali says she is doing this for the people of her home kingdom, Saudi Arabia. “The biggest reason why I’ve done it is because of all the support and questions I’ve received from back home,” she says. “I keep hearing ‘How can I get into the sport – as a driver, engineer, mechanic?’ There are a million and ten different ways to get into motor sport and I could never give them a direct answer. This team for me will do that, via our planned apprenticeship programmes. It’s a way of me giving back to the sport as well.”

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That begs the question, is this a state-funded Saudi team, carrying with it both the associated heavy investment and dubious baggage all too familiar to fans of Newcastle United? “At the moment it is privately backed,” says Juffali. “In the beginning we want to get the team and structure set up right. There are plans for apprenticeships and bringing Saudis in, so we are looking for commercial support internationally as well as in Saudi to help propel the team forward.”

She insists a demand from Saudis to explore motor sport is real, as the kingdom opens up to racing via the Jeddah Formula 1 Grand Prix, Formula E in Diriyah and the Dakar Rally. “It’s an exciting time for people in Saudi to just have this as an option, which they never had before. I can finally answer their questions with this team.” Men and women? “Definitely. It’s about creating this space for people who feel up for the challenge and hopefully this will encourage them to get into the sport, even one day start their own teams.”

Speak to Juffali and you can’t help but be impressed by her drive, ambition and a desire to make a difference, in a country where she has witnessed recent seismic change first-hand – most obviously by the lifting of the female driving ban that kept her at arm’s length from her passion for cars as she grew up in Jeddah. The team name fully reflects her spirit. “It was what I was called when I was a teenager,” she reveals. “When you are young and doing something cool, or some mischief, a friend would call you ‘beast’ or something that translates that way. In Arabic they use the word ‘beast’, but also the word ‘wolf’. It was very male and there wasn’t really a female version – so my friends basically contrived this word and called me Theeba, which is essentially ‘she-wolf’. I forgot about it until I started racing and thought it was quite a fitting name and symbol, so I had it on my helmet from the beginning. When I started the team I couldn’t think of any other name that was as fitting, because it really does describe that passion and drive to want more.”

Juffali flung herself straight into GT racing by competing in the Dubai 24 Hours in January. Again, there might have been easier ways – but ninth overall and second in GT3 Am was vindication. It also triggered the formation of Theeba. “The race was incredible,” she says. “I expected it would take me time to get my head around it, but I actually felt like I thrived, especially in night practice. I ended up doing quite a lot of the night stints and I really enjoyed the racing. It was a lot more strategic and not just driving to the limit constantly. I like that side of things and that excellent result was one of the reasons for thinking ‘this could go well, how can we think about the long-term goal of getting to Le Mans?’ We started thinking ‘we need a Saudi entry, this can’t just be a Saudi driver.’”

The relationship with Christodoulou stretches back to her first season racing in the UK in 2019 when he coached her in a Renault Clio around the British tracks. She knows the 2016 Nürburgring 24 Hours winner well and that is easing her learning curve. So while Le Mans is the target for the future, what does she want from this season? “To be on the overall podium [in International GT Open] and to win the Pro-Am class. Bearing in mind the team’s first race is this weekend, it is setting a reasonable expectation. But I am optimistic. We’re at that stage where I just want to get in the car and get going.”

Theeba team

Theeba aims to eventually bring in young Saudi motor sport prospects through with apprenticeship programmes

Theeba

But she knows she can never escape the long shadow Saudi Arabia still casts when it comes to its reputation for inequality. The stories of human rights abuses cannot be ignored. “I can’t speak for my country,” she says, “but we are making inroads and are trying to open up to the world through tourism, sporting events, even internally with local tourism. There are things I’ve never seen before that I’m going to visit. There is so much positivity and the people are excited, they want to be part of society and contribute, something I considered wasn’t a fact a couple of years ago.

“There is still some way to go. A new country opening its doors to the world, there’s bound to be some kickback. But just be patient and with time these things will change.”

She speaks passionately about a growth in interest for karting and the circuits that will soon be built, for a people who “are passionate and avid sportspeople. This will catch on and hopefully we will have a thriving car and race culture soon in Saudi.”

There’s a “curiosity” about this unfamiliar new world of motor sport, she says. “Theeba will be an introduction and once they hear about the opportunities we are opening for them I’m hopeful they will be excited and want to be a part of the team.

“It’s really about sharing this journey with them. It’s not just my story anymore.”