He had long been competing in the colours of his native country – Switzerland – until 2013 when he switched allegiance as a mark of respect and love for his adorable wife, Tatiana Moussalli Nouri, who is currently the Deputy Group Managing Director of the AIM Group in Lagos.
Nouri who holds a Master’s degree in Economics from the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, has been competing in motor sport since 2007 and actually moved to Nigeria in 2009.
In August, he was acclaimed racing for Nigeria on the F1 circuit of Spa-Franco Champs in Belgium and emerged winner in the colours of his adopted country, the first time in the history of motorsport when a Nigerian and, indeed, an African would end in pole position on the podium. Most recently, he also ended in first position during the final race at the 2016 Lamborghini Blancpain Super Trofeo European Championship held in Valencia between December 2nd and 4th – making him a European champion and vice world champion as a Nigerian.
Speaking with AKEEM LAWAL, Nouri said he has not regretted switching his allegiance to Nigeria, adding that his wife contributed a great deal in making the decision as he shared his passion for Motor Sport as well as his vision for the sports in Nigeria. Excerpts…
Adapting to life in Nigeria
I only speak pidgin, I understand everything in pidgin. I don’t speak Yoruba, Hausa or Igbo yet but I need to learn them. About the food, I eat egusi, yam but my favourite is jollof rice and suya. I really feel like a Nigerian, I live here and I’m hustling like you people.
The first time I came here was 2003 and actually I was positively surprised because I was expecting nothing good about Nigeria when I first came here but I was really positively surprised, everything was fine. Now if I look at from 2003 till today, we have improved so much.
Between football and motorsports
Football is the main sport in Nigeria and it will always overshadow other sports. But we are a big nation, the motor sports community is also big and it will attract some attention. And the fact that we are Nigerian champions it will create interest into motor sports and really my dream is to create a young black Nigerian that will become Formula One champion.
Between Nigeria and Switzerland
I think it was her passion for Nigeria. First of all, she imported me here and I adopted this country because she loves it. If someone who is bringing you in is not convinced about the country or about what she loves, you will never be convinced. So, it was easy for me to really adopt Nigeria as my country. I met her in France in 2001 and she is from Lagos State.
Let me put things in perspective. Imagine you are performing in a top sport but not for your country but for another country. And by doing so, I have a lot of my Swiss friends that were asking me, why are you not representing Switzerland? You are a Swiss, so you should represent Switzerland. I can tell you that I am very proud to represent this country, I’m very proud to become a Nigerian. My children are growing up here in Nigeria and I want to show to the world that Nigeria is a great place to be. We are a great nation, I always say that Lagos State is the capital of Africa; we are vibrant, we have so much entrepreneurs in this country, they are so vibrant and dynamic. I think I can be one of your best ambassadors. If Nigeria is not a great country to live in, I will be a mad man to stay in this country and having my children being brought up here. So, that is why I want to promote this country as much as I can. Do you know that when I use our flag, most of them do not even know what country it is? When they see me displaying the flag on my Lamborghini, they ask me which country is this and I tell them. The first time I ran as a Nigerian, they were asking me, why Nigeria? So, I like the surprise that I provoke in them. And they start asking me Nigeria wise and I tell them I live in Nigeria and they say they can’t imagine that I live there but I tell them it’s a great place to live. We have bad press over there and that is why I am very proud to display the Nigerian flag there. It’s not a marketing thing, but I’m really proud. Go and ask my children, they will tell you they are Nigerians.
Introducing motor sport to Nigerians
First of all, I’m trying to create some interest in motor sport for Nigerians, and Nigeria is a great country and I’m sure that in this Nigeria we can have the next Rosberg, Hamilton or the next Nouri Shahin. My dream is to have a racing academy here in Nigeria so that we can groom younger talents who can become world champions in Formula One. I may be too old to go into Formula One but for the younger generation because I have the expertise. What I’m doing is not for fun. It’s not soccer or football on the field. We want to do it on a professional level. So, with the right people beside me, I want to bring this into Nigeria. Hopefully, proper racing academy here in Nigeria and hopefully being the best here in Africa as well to develop young talents and have proper structure. Nigerians or Africans have the talent to become good race drivers and then to push them into formula One.
Challenges of motor sport
Whenever you race you have to sign like a death warrant thing, that if anything happens to you, you are responsible and at your own risk. Again, we are doing this on proper track and proper facilities with proper cars. We are very well protected and the risk is not that much in my point of view. It can look very risky from the outside, but we really improved in terms of driver’s security. There’s insurance cover to cater for any unforeseen incident.
My targets in 2017
Next year is to be associated with another professional driver, to try winning professional class as well and from there going into 24 hour-Lemo race and hopefully it will be a dream to finish first on the podium to win the race because it is the biggest race outside the Formula One.
Grooming Nigeria champions
Anyone can be a champion. If you look at the likes of Latin America, you have Brazilian champions, Columbian champions, Venezuelan champions; then why are we different? We can have a Nigerian champion; that is not an issue. If we have well-groomed, well-trained and brought to the right places, definitely we can have Nigerian champions. Nigeria is a big country, so I’m sure we have talents in Nigeria for motor sports.
My pre -race rituals
Just before a race, I have to focus on the race itself. So, I will do a lap in my head, I will think about what I’m going to do next and what I’m going to do on each turn. So, I actually do the race in my head. Right after the race, I go to enjoy and celebrate and I send text or call my wife to tell her what happened, speak with the people I love. My family was not with me in Spain when I won a race recently, so I celebrated it with my team. We just went out to celebrate it and when I came back home, my kids were very happy, they welcomed the champion; it was very touching and lovely. I’m still very much happy that now that I am a father. I can enjoy being a champion with my kids.
Dedication to duty
I think I can put this on my dedication because when I cannot train in the car, I’m doing a lot of simulations. So, in my living room, I have a car seat with the wheel or I can just play on my PlayStation or computer because that is where you can learn the layout of the track. So, I do a lot of these. Also, I do a lot of research watching YouTube videos about tracks, about on board footage. I really take things seriously because I know I don’t have so much time inside the car. I also have the help of a racing coach and this also allows me to learn more. Right now, my learning curve is much faster with the coach alone. Yes, I will support any of my kid to go into motor sport; I will let them choose. I will not push them into it. I think they are being inspired already, they see me on the TV, they see me racing, winning, becoming a champion; I think they are already inspired. So, if they are happy to do it, I will support them.
Dumping basketball for motor sport
Well, at that time, with basketball, I became the Junior Swiss champions. Then there were lots of training, lots of practice and I had to go to university. So, I had to make a choice, the professional league in Switzerland is good but you don’t earn a living. So, I had to focus on my study first.
This season when I crashed at Silverstone, I was really depressed. It was disappointing for me not to score any point at the race. But again, I had a lot of support from my wife and I think she really believes in me and she sees that I have the talent. She said ‘no, don’t quit.’ I didn’t want to quit but I was really down. I just put everything back together, put my mind together and believe we will succeed and I did it. You don’t really think about quitting the sport because in racing you are really addicted.
Appreciating sport champions
It is unfortunate that the Super Falcons won the Africa Women Cup of Nations trophy, nobody is really talking about that. When you are doing something good, I think the good will come back to you. I’m expecting you guys to be proud of what I’m doing. I’m expecting you guys to support me, I need your support and on social media I got a lot. At the beginning, I heard some comments like, ‘he is oyinbo, a white man is racing for us; he is not a Nigerian’ and so on. I got a lot of negative comments. Then I did not respond because everyone is free to say what he wants. Even over there many are complaining, he is doing this for Nigeria, he has become a Nigerian. But I always tell them why we are accepting that. Even in Switzerland, we have so many black people representing Switzerland, playing for Switzerland and we say it’s fine. But, for once, it is the other way around, we should be happy. I want Nigerians to recognise me as one of you that is racing for you. We all know that Nigeria has its problem for now; the country is also in a very difficult situation economically. However, I am sure at some point we’ll get some form of recognition from the government.