The BP Ford Abu Dhabi driver scores his first points of the season and the Emirati driver leapfrogs Raikkonen to finish ninth.
Al Qassimi off the mark at Rally Portugal
Sheikh Khalid al Qassimi scored his first World Rally Championship (WRC) points of the season as he moved up two places on the final day of the Rally Portugal yesterday to finish ninth. The BP Ford Abu Dhabi driver had begun the day in 11th place, but benefited from the retirement of the Ford of Henning Solberg before leapfrogging the Citroen Junior car of Kimi Raikkonen to take ninth and two championship points.
Al Qassimi credited his strong form during the final five stages of the gravel event on his tussle with the Ford of Federico Villagra. Though he was ultimately beaten by the Argentine driver, who finished 19.7 seconds ahead in eighth place, their pace allowed them to move past Raikkonen, the 2007 Formula One world champion. "Villagra's split times were coming through to us in the car, so we were able to see how hard we had to push," said the Emirati driver.
"It was a great rivalry, and had the added benefit of taking quite a lot of time out of Raikkonen. "This has been a tough rally, but the drama is why it remains one of my favourites." It was the second successive year that al Qassimi had scored points in Portugal and it is the fifth time in his career that he has picked up points on the world stage. Portugal was only his second WRC event of the year as he had spent the first part of the year focusing on the Middle East Rally Championship.
Meanwhile at the front, it was a memorable day for Sebastien Ogier as the Citroen Junior driver picked up his first WRC victory. The Frenchman held off a fierce challenge from Sebastien Loeb, the world champion, to triumph by 7.9 seconds. He had previously led in both the Turkish and New Zealand rallies but had failed to win. He was not to be denied in Portugal though, despite Loeb taking 13 seconds out of his advantage during the final leg.
"It's a fantastic feeling and I am very, very happy," Ogier told wrc.com. "It has not been easy with Sebastien behind me, pushing me all the time, but we also pushed hard for all of the rally and made no mistakes." Loeb, who extended his lead in the championship to 38 points with his second-place finish, was content with his performance and predicted that Ogier, who has now moved up to second in the standings, was a legitimate title contender.
"I tried all the rally to beat him but he was just too fast," said the Citroen driver. "On the second pass through the stages he was untouchable. I have a new rival now." Dani Sordo, the six-time world champion's teammate, completed the podium in third place. The BP Ford of Mikko Hirvonen capitalised on a mistake from the privateer Citroen of Petter Solberg on the final stage of the event to take fourth place, but he now trails Loeb by 50 points in the title race.
The Finn believed he had got the most he could out of the car, saying: "I tried a different approach this weekend. I was less aggressive, letting my driving flow rather than pushing too much. "I thought my driving was good and the car handled well, but the times weren't fast enough. "I couldn't have driven any faster this morning. I gave everything to try to catch the two guys ahead but my rear tyres lost their grip and midway through the stage I called off the attack.
"I knew I couldn't reach them. It was a difficult rally. I didn't have the pace this weekend to challenge for the win and the rally was tough on tyres." Hirvonen fared better than Jari-Matti Latvala, his teammate, who scored no points after crashing out of contention on stage nine on Saturday. The next round of the series is the Rally Bulgaria, which takes place between July 9-11. * Compiled by Graham Caygill