It is fair to say that Oman is among the lesser-known countries that make up the Middle East. Located on the south-eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, it has one of the smaller populations in the region and, while the nation’s tourism industry is growing rapidly, it is not yet considered a regular travel destination.
So, when a racing driver and team fly the country’s flag in international motorsport, it is bound to attract a degree of curiosity.
For Ahmad Al Harthy, that has always been part of the plan. For more than a decade, Oman’s premier circuit racer has combined a passion for his homeland with his love of motorsport. Now competing in the Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup for Oman Racing with TF Sport, there is no ambiguity about where Al Harthy hails from. He is, in his own words, “an Omani driver powered by Omani partners.”
Al Harthy still lives in Oman – he is back home when we speak, just a few days before track action begins at Silverstone – and talks passionately about the country.
“It’s one of those places that people come to and just fall in love with,” he says. “They always want to come back and they want their friends to come back, too. It's a country that I can describe as having a soul to it – but I'm biased!
“At the end of the day, it's where I'm from and where I grew up and hopefully, through my racing project, I can promote the country in the ways that we want to see it promoted.”
Al Harthy adds another important fact about Oman: the country has no full race circuit, only go-kart tracks, and prior to his arrival its motorsport culture was based entirely around rallying. This presented plenty of obstacles – as well as some opportunities.
MAKING UP FOR LOST TIME
Al Harthy caught the racing bug at the age of seven, when his elder brother took him to a go-kart circuit. The youngster “felt there was a bond between me and the sport”, but it was not until his mid-twenties that he was able to progress.
After competing successfully in the Bahrain-based Thunder Arabia series, he decided to throw his full weight behind racing. Securing local backing, he headed to the UK to contest the Formula Renault BARC championship and finished as runner-up in 2009.
Competing in single-seaters was about making up for lost time. As Al Harthy puts it: “Ever since I started, I’ve always wanted to be an endurance racer.”
Chasing that goal took him first to Porsche Carrera Cup UK, where he was Pro-Am 1 class champion in 2012, and then to a successful stint in British GT. Three years in the series saw Al Harthy finish as championship runner-up in 2014, driving alongside Jonny Adam for Motorbase.
This relationship went international in 2016 when the team and drivers moved up to the Blancpain GT Series, competing in the Pro-Am category of the Endurance Cup aboard an Aston Martin V12 Vantage GT3. In 2017 Al Harthy and Adam switched to the TF Sport squad and were crowned class champions, picking up a Pro-Am podium at the Total 24 Hours of Spa along the way.
“I'm blessed to have been associated with people who really meant well for me,” says Al Harthy. “I’ve always stuck with a team as long as possible and then, once the next step was to move on, it was a matter of them recommending me to people they trusted.
“It was a big move when we went to TF Sport, which is a very professional squad,” he says of the Tom Ferrier-led team. “I was working with an amazing teammate [in Jonny Adam] and we decided to do a two-driver line-up. Everybody looked at it and said it wouldn’t work. With the size of the championship and the competition, we knew how difficult it would be to get that title, but we made it happen.”
POWERED BY OMAN
Next time you get a chance, take a close look at the V12 Vantage that Al Harthy drives in the Endurance Cup. There is no shortage of Omani representation on the #97 machine.
“I’ve always wanted to be sponsored and promoted by companies that have an existence in Oman, to showcase it further,” he explains. “That has always been one of the most important things to me: to be able to proudly say that I am an Omani driver powered by Omani partners.
“Today you've got so many different cars, different drivers, different championships, that people sometimes get slightly lost in terms of trying to find an identity. In my case, I was lucky enough to have that support locally.”
Not that the initial push to secure backing was straightforward. Being the only international circuit racer from Oman, as Al Harthy was at the start of his career, was a double-edged sword.
On one hand, he had no competition from other drivers to secure sponsorship. But, unlike a British, German or French driver, Al Harthy also had no past success stories to point to. There was no reference for what a good career might look like or how it could benefit potential partners.
“It was always a challenge to try and promote a sport that had never existed in the country,” he says. “But, once we started establishing ourselves, it made more and more sense every year.”
BUILDING A LEGACY
While Al Harthy was once Oman’s only major circuit racer, there are now others competing in single-seater and GT categories.
“I held the record of ‘first and only’ for too long!” he says. “I’m proud to say that I was the first, but now I’m not the only one.”
He works in the background to support Oman’s aspiring drivers, with his status giving him an unofficial but crucial role.
“I’m trying to pass on all my knowledge to them,” he says. “We are all from Oman and the challenges are different from the challenges other drivers face.”
“I am extremely proud to have the youngsters look up to me,” he continues. “It's something that really takes time to digest when they rate their top drivers, and I'm not too far from Schumacher and Alonso! I would love to give more guidance and time to see how we can create a young driver programme in the future.”
It is worth considering how Al Harthy has changed perceptions. Once, seeing an Omani flag next to a driver’s name was unusual, but through his efforts in machinery heavily backed by local companies the country now has a foothold in the sport. While he has enjoyed some impressive results, carving out a circuit racing culture for his nation is perhaps Al Harthy’s greatest legacy.
THE “HOME” RACE
For 2018, Al Harthy remains part of the Oman Racing with TF Sport squad and still drives the #97 Aston Martin in the Endurance Cup.
But, having been upgraded to a silver rating over the winter, his time in the Pro-Am ranks has come to an end. The upgrade is clearly something to be proud of – it reflects both his speed and success – though it has also meant a change of class and splitting with long-time teammate Adam.
Fortunately for Al Harthy, the Silver Cup category was expanded to Endurance events this year, providing him with a new home. It pits him against some serious opposition, but the Omani is hugely positive about the switch.
“It was interesting going into [the opening race at] Monza and not knowing where we were until after everything had settled down, and it will be the same for the entire year,” he says. “It’s great because it will keep motivating us.”
Following a fifth-place finish at the Italian venue, Al Harthy and his new teammates, Euan Hankey and Charlie Eastwood, travel to Silverstone this weekend for the second round of the Endurance Cup. And while Northamptonshire is roughly 7,000 kilometres from Oman, this is something of a home race for Al Harthy.
“Silverstone has always been so special to me,” he says. “It's the home of motorsport in the UK, I've been competing there since 2006 and I actually got my ARDS racing licence there. It has always meant so much to me personally, while at the same time the history and the characteristics of the circuit are very exciting as well.”
Al Harthy has silverware to commemorate his success on the circuit, but there are off-track memories that he seems to hold in even greater regard.
“I was at Thruxton and a marshal came up to me and asked: 'Are you really from Oman?' I said I was and he told me that he'd been in Oman during the 1960s and '70s. He mentioned the place where he had lived and, funnily enough, it was the same town that I was living in!
“This kind of thing happened more than once, these special one-on-one conversations with marshals, with visitors, with spectators. You will always find people who can relate to the country and it's always great to chat with them. It's something that I've been very proud to promote.”
This kind of encounter speaks to the international outlook of motorsport and the open-mindedness that it can create. These same characteristics have been vital in Al Harthy’s career. After all, this is a man from a country with no race circuits who set out to become an international circuit racer.