Yara Shalaby, 33, has become the first professional female rally driver in the country, winning several races of the 25 she has participated in, and overcoming stereotypes of what a woman can or cannot do with a car in Egypt.
“With every race, I force people to respect what I do and who I am,” she tells Egypt Today.
Entering the world of rally racing four years ago, Shalaby has already made a mark in the field; she won the first position in the amateur category of the 2014 Pharaohs international Cross Country Rally, and the second overall position. She has also won the second position in the amateur categories of the 2013 El Remaly Desert
Challenge and the 2014 El Gouna Rally Cup.
She is now Egypt’s ambassador to the Women in Motorsports organization.
Like many Egyptians, especially her male counterparts, Shalaby began driving well
before the legal age, when she was only 12 years old. Her family outings used to be in the desert, one of their favorite places during her childhood, where they would go on safari trips during their travels.
“I was scuba diving when I was 15 years old, my family had no restrictions over sports and encouraged me to do any kind of sport [I was interested in],” she says.
“I used to try any adventure sports and I did not care if people would say ‘this is a girl and she cannot do it.’ I did hiking, rock climbing, parachuting and I still want to try more.”
Inspired by her parents, who are aviation engineers, Shalaby joined Ain Shams University’s Faculty of Engineering, where she studied civil engineering and graduated in 2004.
“When I was young, I was fond of flying and airplanes,” she recounts.
She was fond of the desert as a child, and of extreme sports as she grew older, but it wasn’t until theage of 30 that Shalaby discovered her passion for the world of rally during one weekend trip in the desert. “I saw how we were getting rid of obstacles that during the trips with my parents I thought were impossible to cross,” she recounts. It as then that she bought her first four-wheel-drive car, the cheapest one she could find, and ever since she’s never left the world of rallies.
Although she is now a regular rally driver, a team leader and founder of Gazelle Rally Team, Shalaby still maintains her day job as a technical Oracle consultant at QNB Group. She is also mother to an 8-year-old, Aamen.
On top of her mom-duties, passion for rallies and her job at the bank, she is also an amateur kayaker. She led a team of 15 kayakers on November 30 across the Gulf of Aqaba, from Sinai to Jordan and back for a total distance of 42 kilometers.
This is Shalaby’s second time kayaking across the Gulf; her debut trip was in 2015
when she, along with four others from the Cairo Nile Kayak Club, paddled for eight consecutive hours for 20 kilometers. In preparation for the event, the team has been
raining every weekend for the past two months.
Queen of the desert Her success didn’t come easy; in her first race in 2013, she came in 10th. In 2014, she overturned her car and had a problem with the engine that forced her to drive on a maximum speed of 60 kilometers per hour throughout the 500-kilometer long track.
Despite the advice of her technical team, Shalaby drove all night. in the dark and with hardly enough power to jump the dunes, for 12 hours. She arrived just 15 minutes before the next stage began.
She ate, fixed the car and accelerated again; she came in fourth in that race. Shalaby felt that losing her first race in 2013 proved all those who felt that a woman, an Arab woman, couldn’t become a rally driver right.
“That motivated me more. I wanted to show them that I did not surrender,” she says.Since then, Shalaby has only been improving, she finished second in the Pharaohs Cross-Country Rally in 2015 and was then recog-nized as the Best Rally Driver 2016 in the same race the following year.
She then joined the Toyota-sponsored professional racing team Rahalla, trading her Wrangler car for a Land Cruiser, after taking a loan and telling her family that Toyota sponsored her.
She now has her own team, the Gazelle Rally team, which is a group of people with discrete backgrounds and experience coming together to form the team, with their pilot being the only female rally driver currently in Egypt. Shalaby makes a point to endorse fellow women drivers.
“I liked to have most of my team comprising women; I encouraged them the most and helped them to break the barriers,” she says.
Shalaby and her son, Aamen, are often featured together in pictures of her celebrating her wins, where they’re both beaming with pride. “He likes the desert so much, but he doesn`t like the rally and motorcycling, especially after I had a motorcycling accident in May, 2015 at Sakkara,” she says. “I spent six months on a wheelchair so he hated that kind of sports.
Step by step, we got back to the track together and now he attends every race with me.”
Rally racing in Egypt Although many people confuse rally with racing, Shalaby explains that they are completely different. “The difference between rally and auto racing is huge. The most important thing in auto racing is that you have to push your car to the ultimate peak to win the race,” she argues, “but in rally, you have to be smart and with high technicality in mechanics as there are many obstacles you will face in you race.” She adds that on soft-sand dunes, for instance, every moment is critical and the player needs strength and speed because there’s always the risk that the car will overturn or gets stuck in the sand.
“[The desert is] deceptive and often treacherous,” she explains. It is a place you can easily lose your sense of direction and where a map is of little use. The engines also overheat and the driving is a permanent flow of adrenaline, she explains. “It is like a pyramid and you have to take care of each point of the three points: car,driver and co-driver. If any of the three variables is not quite ready; you will lose the race.”
Despite receiving funding from QNB (National Bank of Qatar) since last year, Shalaby had to add LE 20,000 to the LE 30,000 fund from her bank to cover expenses for participating in the rally. She admits that she still needs new sponsors before facing international projects such as the Morocco Rally, which was launched in 1934 and held irregularly until 1988 before it was revived as the OiLibya Rally of Morocco in 2013.
The Morocco Rally is one of the more advanced rallies and is considered a sort of prelude to the advanced Dakar rally, now held in South America.
“The Dakar is a dream, [that I am planning on in] three years from now,” says Shalaby.
An additional obstacle in the world of rally is that in Egypt, this sport is still quite unknown and lacks support from the government. In the UAE, where Shalaby has also taken part in several races, there is a dedicated budget for this sport that attracts sponsors and the public alike.
Similarly, Qatar recently organized a training workshop for women from the world of rally, from pilots to copilots or navigators with representatives from all over the world, with Jutta Kleinschmidt, the first woman to win the Paris-Dakar race.
But in Egypt, it is difficult to garner public, government or private sector support.
“Sponsors lately have been interested in motor sport, but not in rallies. Rally is mostly held in deserts, so only a few fans would attend the race,” Shalaby says, adding that the low visibility means sponsors shy away from putting their money in rallies when they can sponsor seemingly more visible events like football games.
Despite the challenges, Shalaby is insistent on making her dream come true and is now preparing for the Dubai International Rally held on December 8. On the horizon for her also is the biggest event of the year, the 2018 FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile) World Rally Championship held in Abu Dhabi in April.