x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Al Qubaisi looks to endure

Emirati aiming for top-five finish at Le Mans

Porsche 911 RSR, Proton Competition: Christian Ried, Klaus Bachler, Khaled Al Qubaisi
Porsche 911 RSR, Proton Competition: Christian Ried, Klaus Bachler, Khaled Al Qubaisi

A year ago at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Khaled Al Qubaisi was excited at having the honour of being the first Emirati to take part in the race.

This year, Al Qubaisi is more serious about it. A top-five finish in the world’s most famous endurance race, which begins today, is the target.

The 82nd edition of the race is expected to be one the most challenging, in terms of the competition. Al Qubaisi will be in a new car and with a new team, driving a Porsche 911 RSR in the Proton Competition.

Last year, Al Qubaisi finished 10th, but he admitted the occasion and the environment got to him.

“I’m feeling really, really great about it this year,” he told The National ahead of the race. “I can’t hide my happiness about being back here after last year. For me, this is an amazing chance to be here for a second time and much better than the first time. There is no anxiety and stress like I had in my first year. Last year for me was the first and we went straight into the deep end without much preparations.

“I’ve done the full season of the World Endurance Championships this year so I’m used to the car, to the atmosphere of the championship. I come here with a really, really good mental set-up.”

The Proton Competition is one of the biggest in the field with as many as 19 cars racing and, although just finishing remains an achievement, Al Qubaisi is looking beyond.

“There are many top teams and strong line-ups, so the competition is tough,” he said.

“But we’re aiming for a top-five spot. That is our goal. Mainly, it is to finish, but if we finish and do it in the top five we should be really happy about our performance.”

Al Qubaisi has had considerable time to get used to the new model Porsche, as well as new teammates Christian Ried and Klaus Bachler. Last year, Al Qubaisi raced with Saudi Arabia’s Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal and the Italian Andrea Bertolini in the JMW Motorsport Ferrari 458.

This new team has come together during the past year and Al Qubaisi feels the closeness between the trio, who will share 24 hours of driving, gives them an advantage over others.

“To be honest, since last year, I was thinking about this year’s Le Mans. I was thinking of how to do it, doing the whole championships,” Al Qubaisi said.

“We were working on it, with the sponsors, with Abu Dhabi Racing, we put together a programme and one of the things was to do it with the new Porsche.

“We got connected with Christian and that is a great combination. Klaus, I used to know from before. Christian, although, I just met him last March is a great guy to work with and it feels like I’ve known him for years.

“It’s very good to have that between drivers and the team. Other teams that just come to do Le Mans, they don’t have that connection between drivers and the teams, but here we’re all like one hand.”

The usual strategy is for each driver to do about eight hours in one-hour or two-hour stints. But much depends on how the race unfolds and plans have to be flexible. Last year, Al Qubaisi did seven hours.

Qualifying sessions this week have been marred by several red-flag sessions, one coming after a major crash on Wednesday.

That could have affected the race this weekend, as it meant Al Qubaisi might not have had enough time behind the wheel.

But having accepted an invite to race in the Carrera Cup, one of the support races, he is comfortable in the car.

“I love the car,” he said. “This is now our fifth weekend with it, with our second testing last week and two races and the car is shaping up really, really nice.

“It handles great and is really nice to drive. We don’t have the advantage of speed against others but as a car altogether, it is a great car.”

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

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