Growing up in Saudi Arabia, Reema Juffali didn’t know what motorsport was, let alone consider it as a career. This all changed when she moved to the States and fell in love with motorsport. She became the first woman from Saudi Arabia to hold a racing license and currently races in GT classes, including the 24-hour GT series. In 2022, continuing her trailblazing career, Reema started Theeba Motorsport - her own racing team.
Reema has just returned from achieving new career highs, winning the Bronze Cup at the 24 Hours of Spa - the world’s biggest GT race.
“It was so tough, and that's an understatement,” says Reema a few days after the race. “At the 12-hour mark with everything that had already happened, I was just aspiring to get to the finish.”
Her preparation for the event, where she drove for the SPS Performance team, included doing an Ironman triathlon in Finland.
“I had a goal this year that I wanted to do a triathlon and I set that out for myself,” says Reema. “I knew that it’d help me with these endurance races and, after doing 24 hours of Dubai, I knew that fitness-wise I was there but if I was even fitter then I'd have less of an issue.”
Growing up in Saudi Arabia, Reema was passionate about sports but she didn’t know anything about F1 or racing until she moved to the United States to study.
“It wasn't until I left that I was exposed to a lot of different sports,” she says. “I came across F1 and I was like, wow, this is something. Why haven’t I watched this before? But it was so foreign - I didn't understand what was going on.
“I remember my sister walked into the room and she's like, why do you have a pen and paper? I needed to learn the flags!”
However, for Reema, it wasn’t watching F1 that made her want to start racing.
“I watched the 24 hours of Le Mans,” she says. “Before then, motorsport and racing were just an impossible dream – they were so far away, and Le Mans caught my attention. There's actually amateur drivers in it, and winning and on the podium!”
Aged about 19 she drove a road car around a track for the first time before gifting herself a three-day racing school experience in Florida as a graduation present.
After trying for a while to get her racing license, Reema hit a crossroads in 2017. She was about to move back to Saudi Arabia and felt that she had exhausted all her options to get into racing.
“It was meeting Susie [Wolff] in 2017,” she says. “That was kind of catalyst because, at that point, my working life was getting in the way of pursuing my dream to become a racing driver and she reminded me to follow my passion."
“She gave me some advice. I should go to this racing school, maybe speak to this person. And just the next month after that meeting, I went and got my racing license.”
In 2019, Reema started racing in the British Formula 4 Championship. Aged 25, she was significantly older than the other drivers.
“I was ten years older than my team-mates, and I had to learn on the go, and I had to learn there and make mistakes there.”
In her first season, she finished 13th in the championship.
“A year in F4 and my confidence and everything grew so much,” she says. “In the beginning, I was chasing the pack, and then eventually I started racing them, but for the longest time, I was literally just catching up.”
Most of the current F1 field started karting before their 10th birthday. Reema says that her discovery of racing later in life made it more difficult when she started competing.
“If I did at a younger age, it would come more instinctually and there'd be less fear and less apprehension,” she says. “This was my dream and something that I wanted to do - so that kept me going.”
Now, Reema can be found racing GTs, where the cars are much closer to road cars than in single-seaters.
“An F3 car has more aerodynamics than a GT car,” she says. “It’s a more direct feel and force when you're driving a formula car. It gives you that raw feeling in a car.”
Reema enjoys the battles and mixture of drivers that you find in GT races.
“You have more overtaking and battling, which is more fun,” she says. “You can get close, you can touch. There's a lot more strategy challenges because you're not just driving a sprint - it’s a marathon.”
Being a female racing driver from Saudi Arabia, Reema was always likely to attract attention. When she started in the British Formula 4 Championship, her entry made headlines. However, it wasn’t something she’d considered before she went on track.
“I didn't think about it in my first race; I really didn’t even think there was a story,” she says. “It was so important for me to go and get on track and do it.
“When it became a story and it kind of blew up overnight, it felt like there was a whole sense of realisation of somewhat like, whoa, what's going on? Do I deserve this attention?”
She was unsure what the reaction would be from people in Saudi Arabia. At the time, motorsport wasn’t widely watched and women had only had the opportunity to hold driving licenses for under a year.
“I didn't anticipate Saudis and my people,” she says. “People that I know, I've grown up with, to be all in with something like this - something that's foreign to them, something that hasn't been around in their society or around them.”
The reaction of people back home made Reema decide that what she was doing was about more than just her.
“Within the first season of racing, I realised that actually it's a lot bigger than me, bigger than my own journey,” she says. “People, especially Saudis and in the Middle East, heard this story and were taken by it and impacted by it in such a way and it wasn't something I imagined.”
After racing for a few years, she decided that she wanted to give something back to all the people that supported her and provide more opportunities for people interested in motorsport.
“I was still just pursuing my own, doing my own thing for these last couple of years and I was trying to think of ways of giving back,” she says. “How can I bring, whether it's Saudis or people who are interested in this work, what can I do? And this is the way the team idea came about.”
Her team, Theeba Motorsport, is all about giving people from Saudi Arabia the opportunity to work in motorsport. She wants people to have an opportunity to succeed in all the different roles in a motorsport team.
“Saudis are going to be able to come to the races, be a part of a team,” she says. “There’s so much more to motorsport than people know. I hope that as a team, we can provide that and show what motorsport has to offer.”
The team is currently racing in International GT Open and Reema drives alongside Adam Christodoulou. They finished first in the Pro-Am class in the first two races of the season and fourth and third overall respectively. However, Reema’s goal for the team is about more than race results.
“To start off with, I’d say within the next three years, hopefully enter Le Mans under a Saudi license with some Saudis a part of the team,” she says. “The hunger and the passion are there. We just need to provide the platform and that's happening at home and the infrastructure is being established.”
Reema is determined that her success will break down some of the barriers that prevent both men and women from her country from participating in motorsport.