PORDENONE (ITALY): Saudi Arabia’s top female driver Dania Akeel has been crowned the FIA T3 Drivers’ Champion in the 2021 FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Bajas following a hard-earned fourth place at the Italian Baja.
Partnered by Frenchman Stéphane Duple on the two-day northern Italian off-road classic, Akeel produced a measured performance over the five demanding gravel stages across the northern Italian riverbeds and glacial flood plains to earn another vital haul of points.
She duly confirmed victory in the FIA T3 category with one round remaining and stayed in contention for success in the FIA European Cup for Cross-Country Bajas at the wheel of an RM Sport-prepared Mamba side-by-side vehicle.
Akeel said: “I finished the Italian Baja and, according to the championship points standings, that gives me the FIA T3 World Championship – I am so happy!
“I enjoyed the weekend a lot, but I was understandably nervous. We lost some time in the car, but I decided to just focus on finishing the race and collect the points to win the championship. That’s exactly what we did, and I am absolutely delighted.
“I could not have done this without my co-driver, RM Sport and the Saudi Motor Sports Federation. They informed me and educated me about the sport and how to go about it. That was priceless knowledge. Everyone involved has contributed towards this fantastic achievement and I’m extremely grateful for the support.”
The weekend’s action got underway with a qualifying stage of 7.55km at Meduna. This enabled Baja officials to arrange the starting order for the opening selective section of 74.94km that was held across the nearby gravel riverbeds and flood plains late on Friday afternoon.
“We had a shakedown in the morning, about 20km,” said Akeel. “It was fun. I felt the car was slipping and sliding and I thought there was something wrong. But Stéphane told me it was normal here because the terrain has these small stones.
“He advised me to stay in the middle of the track where the cars were running before me, as it provided more grip. Between Poland and Italy I went to France to train with Christian Lavieille, a top French pilot. He gave me a lot of advice and tips about the balance of the car. That has changed my whole view on driving, even though it is my first season.”
Akeel slotted into fourth after the qualifying stage and she maintained that position through the day’s demanding selective section and rigours of the special stage.
“In the morning I thought I would be most concerned about the grip, but I completely forgot about that in the first 20km,” said the Saudi.
“The visibility was very poor. There was a fog and the sun started to set and it went dark. I forgot about the issues in the morning. It was more about finding the track and the outline of the trees. It was a real challenge. When it became night time, the obstacles increased, but we managed to overcome them and finish the stage. That is what the sport is about, being challenged and finding it within yourself to progress.”
Three runs through a selective section of 92.31km between Pasch and Dignano were on the cards for the final day with a non-competitive neutralisation zone slotted into the stage after 12.40km.
Despite briefly slipping to fifth, largely due to a loss of drive when the front right wheel was disconnected, Akeel remained firmly on course to secure the points that would cement the FIA T3 World Cup title. Once the team changed the parts and resolved the issue, the talented female was more than seven minutes faster on her second tour.
“It was great compared to yesterday when we only had two-wheel drive. It made it difficult to go fast. We were sliding and we had to make sure we didn’t tip over. All the water was coming in and we really had to push the car to get through. Once the team repaired the car, we were able to show much better pace on the second lap. Overall, it was another great experience… capping off a brilliant season.”
Another solid drive kept Akeel on track for a vital result on the deteriorating stage surface. She headed to the final stage in fifth place, but impressively improved late on to cross the finish line in fourth to seal the FIA World Cup’s T3 title.
The 32-year-old’s brilliant championship winning campaign began with victories in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, before claiming a double podium in Hungary and Poland respectively. Now completing her first competitive season with a fourth-place finish in Italy, the celebrations can begin with Akeel being crowned an FIA World Cup winner.
The Saudi female driver will now concentrate on preparations for the world famous 2022 Dakar Rally in her native Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
2021 Italian Baja – FIA T3 result
1. Santiago Navarro (ESP)/Marc Solà (ESP) Overdrive OT3 5hr 35min 34.5sec
2. Jesus Fuster (ESP)/Gabriel Lopez (ESP) Herrator HRX3 6hr 28min 45.5sec
3. Filipe Nascimento (PRT)/Paulo Torres (PRT) DPR by PRK Sport 002 6hr 32min 28.7sec
4. Dania Akeel (SAU)/Stéphane Duple (FRA) RM Sport Mamba 6hr 45min 40.7sec