JYVASKYLA, FINLAND // Sheikh Khalid al Qassimi is focused on improving his own personal performance at the Rally Finland this weekend rather than setting a target of a higher points finish. The BP Ford Abu Dhabi driver has scored six points this season, achieving the best result by an Emirati driver in the World Rally Championship with a sixth place at the Acropolis Rally in Greece last month.
But he has not raced or tested since then and, after spending 45 days away from the car, he believes it will be difficult for him to push in Finland at the level he was able to earlier in the season. "It is going to be difficult as it takes time to find your level in the car when you have not been racing or testing," he said. "I have not been in the car since then [Greece] and all I have driven in is my road car in Abu Dhabi so it is difficult to expect to be able to get back in the car again and find that high performance immediately.
"My aim is going to be just trying to improve my performance from my previous times here." Al Qassimi's Ford teammate, Mikko Hirvonen, is also looking to do better in Finland - after finishing second to Citroen's Sebastien Loeb last year. Despite having the expectations of the thousands of fans who have converged on Jyvaskyla, Hirvonen's home town, expecting to see the leader triumph and extend his title advantage, he is determined to enjoy the experience. "It is a really good feeling coming to Finland in front," he said.
"I was in the same position last year, but I feel more relaxed than I did then and am I looking forward to it and am confident of fighting for the victory." Hirvonen will be first on the road in today's nine stages, something which may prove a disadvantage as he will be effectively clearing the loose gravel for his rivals to have a smoother time behind him when they go through. But he does not expect to lose too much time. "Yes there may be a bit of a disadvantage with going first," he said.
"But we are going so fast and the lines will be so similar that we are be going to be battling in tenths of seconds. I expect it to be a close fight with Sebastien and Jari-Matti Latvala." Hirvonen, along with Latvala, are staying with Ford for the 2010 and 2011 seasons. Al Qassimi was 11th last year and 16th in 2007, but appeared to lack confidence in yesterday's pre-rally shakedown, clocking a time of 2mins 08.1secs around the 3.76km stage near Jyvaskyla, almost six seconds slower than the fastest time set by the world champion Loeb, to leave him only 15th fastest.
"I will look to improve my confidence and speed during the rally and will take it stage by stage, but I will do my best and will look to push against what I have done before here," al Qassimi said. "I won't look to think about setting a target for a result. Anything can happen in this event and I will just try to do my best and see what happens. "I have had half the testing mileage of some of the big boys so my stage times can cannot compare to those guys."
He has been pleased with his form this year that saw him finish eighth in Ireland, Cyprus and Portugal before a sixth-place finish in Greece, but believed he can only get even quicker with more time in the car and testing. "I have had the best results of my career this season and I think it shows how much we have progressed and improved. "We have come a long way in terms of speed and it is still about finding and pushing that limit more in places, if I am going to make further steps forward.
"But to find that extra second or so which we are losing in some corners to the big guys, I need more time in the car, as it is only with practice that you can gain the confidence to really push." After today's opening leg, there are nine stages tomorrow and the event finishes on Sunday with the final four stages. email@example.com