ABU DHABI // Sheikh Khalid al Qassimi, the UAE's flag-bearing World Rally Championship (WRC) representative, is under no illusions as to the scale of the task facing him at this weekend's Rally Japan - round 10 of the 13-event season. Prior to landing in the Land of the Rising Sun on Monday, the globe-trotting al Qassimi, the third driver for the Abu Dhabi-backed Ford team, had never stepped foot on Japanese soil.
Now, less then 96 hours after exiting customs in Sapporo - where two super special stages will kick-start the Asian off-road spectacle today - al Qassimi is relishing his latest journey into the unknown. "I'm really excited about this rally," he said, via telephone from Japan. "It's another new destination for me and will be completely different to anything I've encountered in Europe. It's my first visit here and there are so many elements to this event that are new for me - it is not like other rallies."
Rally Japan, a high-speed gravel test made treacherous by unpredictable late-summer rains, is al Qassimi's ninth event of the 2010 season. Surprisingly, however, it is only his fifth WRC outing. Space may be at a premium in the Emirati driver's increasingly well-worn passport, but a higher-than-usual number of entry and exit marks from regional countries have been added this term. Al Qassimi has dutifully dovetailed a Middle East Rally Championship title challenge - mechanical-forced retirements have taken the gloss off a promising start to the campaign - with continued development on the sport's elite global stage.
The constant travel, he confessed, takes its toll. Nonetheless, the ever-confident Sharjah resident now expects strong finishes every time he buckles up in the BP Ford Abu Dhabi Ford Focus. "The big problem here is the unknown factor," al Qassimi said. "From culture to pace notes, I will be learning everything as I go. I don't know what to expect, but it will be interesting to see how the weather affects the surface. If it rains, we can expect the stages to be very slippery, but if it stays dry then another type of challenge lies in store."
Al Qassimi's last gravel outing came in July's Rally Finland. Despite retiring from the Nordic event after a severe crash, he is eager for a repeat performance. "I was running seventh or eighth when I crashed," al Qassimi said. "That's part of the game, but I want to carry that same spirit to Japan and I have a clear goal of a top 10 finish." With clear divisions separating the WRC's leading lights from the lower points-scoring drivers, al Qassimi is well aware of who he will need to beat to realise that objective. "There are always certain drivers that I seem to be close to, whether it's Kimi [Raikkonen], [Federico] Villagra or [Matthew] Wilson," al Qassimi said. "There is competition for every place, not just the podium. I'm also expecting strong challenges from some of Japan's local talents - they know the stages and are always fast."
Al Qassimi, who is immersing himself in Japan's traditions and cultures during his week-long stay, revealed his surprise at the locals showing more than a passing interest in their rally's only Emirati entry. "The Japanese media have shown a lot of interest in me. I suppose being the first Emirati to compete here has guaranteed me a certain amount of press attention and from fans too. Everyone has been very friendly and I'm looking forward to getting started."
Al Qassimi's participation in Japan represents another significant first for the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority-supported Ford team. With Etihad, the UAE's national carrier, having started operating flights to the Far East nation earlier this year, al Qassimi - busy though he is - is thankful for the chance to help spread Abu Dhabi's name around the world. "The intention was never to restrict my WRC programme to Europe," al Qassimi said. "We knew that as I gained more experience, certain long haul events would be incorporated into my calendar. My schedule is carefully selected to align with what Abu Dhabi is doing to promote itself internationally, for example my entry in Rally Australia last year.
"This is the nature of the programme; it is about maximising how the emirate is marketing itself in various territories around the world and it is fantastic to be playing a role in that - we are on the right track." Racing, however, will always remain the 37-year-old's primary duty. "I've had eight events since January, but now I have another eight events in three months," al Qassimi said. "The more time you spend in the car, the better the feeling - so I'm happy to be so busy. After here I'm flying straight to Lebanon for the tarmac-based Middle East championship [MERC] round; it's exciting - this is what I do."