It is quite easy to like Sheikh Khalid al Qassimi. He has a wonderful demeanour, appears to smile at everything and everyone and has a marvellous sense of humour. All in all he is the perfect ambassador for the UAE and Abu Dhabi in particular. He also takes great delight at poking fun at himself. "I like to drive like an old man," laughed the UAE's leading racing driver, quickly adding: "But only when I am on the public streets."
Al Qassimi, who had just hours before finished the Wales Rally GB 2008 in a creditable 16th, was being driven back to Heathrow Airport from Cardiff for his flight back to Abu Dhabi. One could sense he was feeling relaxed as the man employed to sit behind the steering wheel of the Ford Galaxy to taxi him along the M4 kept within the British motorway speed limit of 70mph, slowing down to the permitted 50mph when approaching roadworks.
"I like my Lexus," said the 33-year-old Emirati. "When I am in Abu Dhabi I like to get into the inside lane and cruise along nice and gently in comfort and well under the speed limit. I use up my energy and adrenalin on the rally course." However, al Qassimi, who also owns Ferraris and Porsches, is never more alive than when sitting in the bucket seat of his Ford Focus RS screaming at well over 100mph through forests - and deserts - taking his life into his own hands as he misses trees and large boulders by a matter of inches.
"It is very exciting, yes, but there are times, like in Wales, when I have to tell myself that I must be sensible and take my foot off the pedal," he said. "I am not used to driving in such brutal conditions so I will not take any unnecessary risks." He began rally driving in 2002 when he competed in the Middle East Rally Championship, winning the FIA Merc Group N Cup and the UAE Championship. In the six years since, he has suffered a number of serious crashes. One in particular planted a seed of doubt in the back of his mind, a doubt that often keeps him from driving full out on an unknown track.
It was in 2003 when he was taking part in the Dubai Rally. He crashed his car at such a speed that he broke a number of vertebrae. "I was just hoping that I would be able to get in a normal car again and drive along a normal street," he said. "That was my real wish, I hadn't given racing again a thought, the injury was that serious." This, according to al Qassimi, is where he differs from many of the world's leading drivers, such as the current world champion Sebastien Loeb.
"He, like many of the drivers at the very top, has not felt the emotion of being involved in a serious crash," he said. "He has not endured that feeling of real pain. I am sure that if he did he would not be as fast as he is now. But, in saying that, he is a wonderful driver, a brave driver and a worthy world champion." Driving a rally car takes an immense amount of concentration, which is why al Qassimi often suffers from headaches and finds sleeping difficult during the three day of competing in a rally.
"You have to concentrate all the time when driving," he said. "When I first started racing I used to notice people in the crowd, supporters standing by the road cheering me on. Now all I see are bends and hazards. I have to be focused on the road." He said his friends know exactly how he feels, the reason they do not text or call him when he is "working". "They know not to disturb me," he said. "I have trouble sleeping. After a day's racing I go back to the hotel, have a very fast shower and then I am ready for bed. I lay there thinking, always thinking. I think of how I could have gone faster, what I could have done better. I think of the stage that's coming up, think about how I can do well on it. I am always thinking, except when I am driving, and then I am concentrating too hard to think!"
He began driving for Ford in the middle of the 2007 season when the capital's tourism authority became a sponsor of the World Rally Championship (WRC) team. The final rally of this, his first full season, turned out to be his most difficult, it being held in conditions - snow, ice and rain - he had rarely driven in before. However, in a perverse way, the rally was also his most satisfying. "Just finishing felt like a victory. That was by far the hardest WRC I have taken part in. It meant a lot to me just to finish the rally," he said.
As yet he has not enjoyed a top-eight finish, but he was holding fifth position in the fifth round of this year's championship in Jordan before three punctures in the final stage dropped him to ninth. He does, though, hold the distinction of making the longest jump in WRC history when his car leapt 36 metres during Rally Sweden, a feat he is immensely proud of. "It was wonderful to get that record, but looking back on it now it was pretty scary," he said.
"I was in the air for what seemed like forever. All I could see was sky and I had no idea where the car was going to land. I don't think I will be doing that again for a while." The coming 12 months will be a particularly busy period for al Qassimi. The new season starts next month in Ireland and with the number of rallies being reduced from 15 to 12 he has numerous decisions to make as to which ones to compete in. As an ambassador for Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) he takes great pride in being a role model for young Emirate drivers. Indeed he is hopeful that within five years a WRC rally will be held in Abu Dhabi and that more than one local driver will be taking part.
"This is very important for me," he said. "I would love to help young Emiratis in taking on the world's best racing drivers in the years to come. It would give me a tremendous amount of satisfaction." However, 2009 being the year of the inaugural Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix, he is also in demand to "sell" the F1 race to the rest of the world. Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon al Hahyan, the chairman of ADTA, is keen for him to "meet and greet" representatives and sponsors of F1 during the year. "I am going to have to look at the dates of next season WRC rallies very carefully," he said.
"I am going to have to juggle my diary around so that I can do all three jobs, helping out the young drivers, supporting the F1 race and driving rally cars. There may be times when things clash so I'll have to be very selective." One of the few things that exasperate him about rallying is the vast amount of travelling he has to do to compete in each race. "That is one of the few things I find difficult," he said. "Most of the drivers live in Europe and so do not have to travel far for the majority of the rallies. I have many thousands of miles to come from the UAE and I do find that very tiring. This will be the only reason I will ever stop racing."
Just then, that infectious grin fills his face again. "When my rally driving career comes to an end I could drive a black cab around London," he sniggered as he advised his driver on a short cut to Heathrow's Terminal Three, missing much of the heavy London traffic. Within minutes the car is outside the terminal. "That is one advantage of doing much travelling. I know London very well so I could quite easily become a cabbie," he smiled.
But for now he has much work to do in bringing Abu Dhabi to the attention of the rest of the world, and it is a job he will relish for some years to come. firstname.lastname@example.org