x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Even playing field can give al Qassimi his opportunity

Since winning the 2004 Middle East Rally Championship, Sheikh Khalid al Qassimi has been the UAE's most prominent motorsport personality in seasonal competition.

Two years in to his World Rally Championship career, Sheikh Khalid al Qassimi is starting to win championship points on a regular basis.
Two years in to his World Rally Championship career, Sheikh Khalid al Qassimi is starting to win championship points on a regular basis.

KINGSCLIFF, NSW // Since winning the 2004 Middle East Rally Championship, Sheikh Khalid al Qassimi has been the UAE's most prominent motorsport personality in seasonal competition. His regional successes aside, al Qassimi's arrival on the international scene came to when Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority signed a long-term sponsorship partnership with World Rally Championship manufacturer Ford. Two years ago, the Emirati driver was granted the keys to the team's newly-created third car. His role: be Abu Dhabi's official ambassador in the ultra-competitive global off-road series.

Fast forward to this January, and al Qassimi had gone through a difficult season-and-a-half of adjustment. After patiently biding his time to adapt to the rigours of round-the-world competition, al Qassimi began the present WRC season feeling strangely "comfortable." He believed he had graduated from nervous new-kid-on-the-block status - his subsequent form ample proof that he has. Nine rounds in, al Qassimi has claimed four top-eight finishes and amassed six points.

The "King of the Jumps", a name bestowed on him by his fellow WRC drivers, is now the most successful Arab driver in rally history. However, on the eve of Rally Australia - which starts tomorrow - al Qassimi is under no illusions there is plenty left to learn. "[Australia] is a new challenge and I'm really looking forward to it," he said. "I don't know anything about the terrain, so I just hope the stages are enjoyable. Hopefully the stages will be wide and offer plenty of traction and control - that will help build my confidence."

Mental strength is not one of al Qassimi's shortcomings, but inexperience (ironically, at 37 he is one of the WRC's oldest drivers) certainly is. In the last two years, al Qassimi's passport has been running out of pages. New countries and experiences, strange terrains and alien cultures. However, with a completely new rally route, Australia - another country and event al Qassimi is crossing off his "to do" list - offers a unique chance to be in the majority.

"It is a new rally for everyone, we are all in the same position and hopefully I can get a good result. I think top 10 is achievable, but in my heart I'm hoping for points," al Qassimi said. "Things come quickly when you find the pace, but I have to discover the location and stages first - maybe one or two points are achievable." Al Qassimi's team director, Malcolm Wilson, agrees with his driver's assessment: "The good thing [for Khalid] is the fact Australia is new for everybody. It will be a good tester; we'll be able to draw comparisons of Khalid's times with other drivers and see how he is progressing," said Wilson.

"This rally has a bit of everything. The stages are fast, narrow, tight and have twisty sections; it might suit Khalid - certain sections will be similar to conditions in the Middle East." Al Qassimi hopes his boss is right. Points now mean everything; simply finishing - the initial objective when he joined the team - is no longer enough. However, as is often the case, al Qassimi's limited - in this case zero - opportunities for pre-rally testing will hinder his chances before he starts a stage.

"Being familiar with the car takes time," he said. "My teammates have done 500km-1,000km of testing in the last month and the feeling is there is for them. "Even the best drivers can't produce performances if they don't test - they told me this. It is something we have to figure out and we're trying to find a solution, but it's not easy," he said. Even planned tests can fall through. "We had planned to do a tarmac test before Rally Spain [which follows Australia] because my last asphalt rally was eight months ago in Ireland," al Qassimi admitted.

"But the date I was given clashes with the Eid holidays and I have promised my father I will go with him to visit the President. You have to weigh it up, travelling eight hours for a one hour test is not always going to work." In Australia, al Qassimi is going about his work looking fresh and relaxed. For once, his journey has been a little less arduous than those of his peers. emegson@thenational.ae