The BRDC British Formula 3 Championship will begin this weekend at Brands Hatch and, as usual, the class is brimming with ambition, expectation and blind hope that this will be another step on the road to a professional life in motorsport.
Among the young men is a 29-year-old woman. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about that – except she’s from Saudi Arabia, a place that not only lacks an established motor-racing culture but also, far more significantly, banned women from even driving on the road until 2018. That makes Reema Juffali singularly special – and so is the story of how she got here.
Ban didn’t stop her
“It all started from a young age,” says Juffali. My love for cars was pretty clear. That’s where I was happiest.” But growing up in Jeddah, she was ostracised from her passion, purely due to her gender. “There was definitely a sense of frustration: ‘I want this, but I can’t have it’,” she says. “I don’t want to give a rosy image. It’s why I appreciate it now.”
Saudi Arabia finally lifted its ban on women driving in 2018, a year after Juffali had returned home after seven years of study and work in the US and the UK, during which time she was free to fully explore her love of motorsport. “It wasn’t until I was at university [in Boston, US] and had left Saudi that I was exposed to racing,” she says. “When I was there, I gained an understanding that there was more to it than just Formula 1 and that men and women could compete at different levels. I thought it was done and dusted as something I couldn’t even think about. Now I saw there was an opportunity for me.”
Racing from a standing start
Beyond the ban in her home country, what’s really impressive about Juffali is how she worked her way into motorsport from a starting point of zero. “I didn’t know anyone who raced,” she says. “It involved a lot of research and asking people questions, and everyone came back with different answers.”
The seed properly took root during her time working in London, but it took time to bloom – and no wonder. “I started doing track days and being around the scene,” she says. “That’s when I started looking into getting my race licence. It was a lot simpler than I initially thought.
“I decided to gift myself a three-day course at a racing school as an opportunity to figure out how a racing car would feel. But then life happened, and I ended up taking a professional route into finance, doing the nine-to-five in London and New York. When I finally moved back to Saudi in 2017, there was still this itching desire to give racing a go.
“In the back of my mind, I knew the day would come when I’d be able to drive in Saudi,” she says on the lifting of the ban. “In summer 2017, they announced that it would happen in a year, and when it came, it was a momentous occasion. I had learnt to drive abroad, so when I got in a car for the first time in Saudi, it didn’t feel so foreign – but it was definitely strange.”