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Khalid Al-Qassimi (UAE) Ford Fiesta RS WRC on stage 24. World Rally Championship, Rd10, Rally of Australia Day Three, Coffs Harbour, New South Wales, Australia, 10 September 2011.
Khalid Al-Qassimi (UAE) Ford Fiesta RS WRC on stage 24.  World Rally Championship, Rd10, Rally of Australia Day Three, Coffs Harbour, New South Wales, Australia, 10 September 2011.

Al Qassimi achieves best yet with fifth place in Australia

Emirati driver calls result in Rally Australia "a great day for Abu Dhabi and the UAE".

Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi hailed his career-best World Rally Championship finish as a victory for Abu Dhabi and the UAE after coming fifth at Rally Australia yesterday.

"We have fallen short with the football team and in other sports, so for an Emirati such as myself to finish fifth in what is the top level of rally driving - you don't get better than this - is great for our country and it's come at a good time when we need some success," said Sheikh Khalid, whose previous best placing was sixth at the Acropolis Rally in Greece in 2009.

"This is a great day for Abu Dhabi and the UAE in general because we have not been near the top at any true international sport in recent times.

"I am absolutely delighted with the result. The conditions were so difficult once the rain came down.

He added: "It was the best drive of my life and I hope it puts the UAE on the world motorsport map, and now I want to move forward and improve over the next race."

The Emirati's performance almost overshadowed that of his Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally teammates' one-two finish.

Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen won this 10th round of the championship, at Coffs Harbour midway between Sydney and Brisbane, by 14.7 seconds ahead of fellow Finns and teammates Jari-Matti Latvala and Miikka Anttila.

Sheikh Khalid and co-driver Michael Orr controlled their Fiesta RS WRC superbly in slippery conditions, which the Abu Dhabi man described as like driving on soap. There were several crashes during the rally.

"There were parts of stages, such as through the forests, which felt like the road was soap. I was watching what was happening to the others guys as they crashed, and came up with a strategy to go fast in the drier areas, but use my head and control my speed in the wet," Sheikh Khalid said.

"The trick was to keep out of trouble and stay on the road while everyone else was having big problems. It was difficult and there were times when I had to calm my nerves."

It was a fine day all round for Abu Dhabi Ford and the result promoted Hirvonen to second in the drivers' standings, just 15 points from the leader (the seven-time world champion Sebastian Loeb who finished half an hour behind Sheikh Khalid) with three rounds remaining.

Latvala, whose own hopes of championship success vanished earlier in the season, was happy to support his teammate's title bid. He went into the penultimate speed test with a 13.4 second advantage over Hirvonen, but slowed near the finish to allow his teammate to move ahead.

"At the start of the season we agreed to help each other, and Jari-Matti showed today what a team player he is," Hirovnen said after his 14th WRC career victory.

"He had a great opportunity to win this rally but he gave it up to help me in my fight for the championship and I appreciate that. Two years ago I lost the world title by a single point, so every point counts.

"My thanks go to the whole team. We've waited for this for a long time and I know we can continue to fight for wins and titles together.

"It's been a hard season and we've been under great pressure. We controlled the weekend well as a team and I'm delighted for Ford that we're returning home with a one-two."

Latvala could reflect positively on a rally which, under any other conditions, he would have won.

"I know I had the speed to win here and that's good for my confidence, but I wanted to support Mikko. I want to be in this team and we all work well together. I had a passion to win here, but I had to look at the bigger picture."

Petter Solberg was third in his privateer Citroen DS3 WRC, while Matthew Wilson equalled his career-best finish of fourth in his M-Sport Stobart Fiesta

Ford paid tribute to the victims of the September 11 terror attacks by carrying memorial stickers on their Fiesta RS WRCs yesterday to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the tragic events in Washington and New York.

ncameron@thenational.ae

* With agency

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