x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Juniors follow in the slipstream of Qassimi

There is an overriding hope that the rallying programme grooming UAE drivers will offer some return to the Emirates in future times.

The UAE's sole rally driver Sheikh Khalid al Qassimi, right, passes on his words of wisdom to Abu Dhabi Junior Driver Ahmed al Mansoori.
The UAE's sole rally driver Sheikh Khalid al Qassimi, right, passes on his words of wisdom to Abu Dhabi Junior Driver Ahmed al Mansoori.

In the roaming sport of rallying it would be easy to imagine that subjecting one's self to the mercy of misfortune requires a fair amount of resolve. The Finnish driver, Jari-Matti Latvala, cut an ebullient figure a fortnight ago after claiming his second professional win in the Rally of Italy. He was far removed from the dazed figure who was fortunate to be standing upright after his car was subjected to a terrifying tumble down a hill in the Rally of Portugal.

Latvala retreated to the BP Ford Abu Dhabi's team hotel in the Sardinian town of Olbia to celebrate his Italian win with his teammate Mikko Hirvonen, a figure who was hardly plodding along in finishing his week in second place. He could be found listening to the grinding tones of the American rap star Kanye West on some loud speakers, but one imagines the memories to which he was subjected on the eminently perishable and treacherous segments of the Portuguese roads circling Faro must have flickered as formidably between his personal airwaves.

In trying to speed around a bend at breakneck speed, Latvala spun out of control and overturned. He descended at a rapid rate down what was has been described by some rallying commentators as the side of a "mountain". Latvala has had to climb his own Everest, one imagines, in getting himself back into a car and back into first gear. He was cocooned in his car with the Ford co-driver Mikko Antilla as his car rolled over 17 times. The Ford team manager, Malcolm Wilson, has conceded that Latvala and companion were fortunate to escape serious injury.

Latvala has said he was fortunate not to be killed, but there seems no shortage of drivers in the UAE willing to put themselves on the line in this most hairiest of sports. The Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) is determined to carry the name of the Emirates across foreign climes with rallying a prime marketing tool. Rallying fits snugly within Abu Dhabi's pursuit of mass exposure. In television highlights packages, rallying is said to command audiences of 810million.

Abu Dhabi's tourist montage of "Travellers Welcome" has been splashed across the travelling calvacade of the Ford team that clamps itself to the sport over the past two years, a kind of rallying call in rallying. In the blizzard of paraphernalia that is used in trying to market the UAE's capital abroad, it is easy to overlook the fact that this remains a highly dangerous pursuit, one not to be taken lightly for the hardy contingent of UAE drivers determined to pursue a career in driving such speeding machinery.

France's Sebastien Loeb is pursuing a sixth world title, but was involved in a head-on collision with a rival driver in Jordan last year. He escaped unscathed. One false move, and a rallying car can suddenly resemble a runaway tumbleweed. For the thrill seekers who drive fast cars, there is a fine line between bravery and stupidity, but it manages to assemble characters who view it as contagious.

The ADTA sponsor the Ford team that is represented by Hirvonen and Latvala, and the UAE's sole driver Sheikh Khalid al Qassimi. One imagines the ADTA is also throwing a fair few Euros into their junior development programme on World Rally Championship (WRC) circuits. Ahmed al Mansoori, Majed al Shamsi and Bader al Jabri are the three drivers on the junior programme which occurs over eight parts of the 12-rally season.

There is an overriding hope financial and emotional investment will offer some return to the Emirates in future times. Rallying could spawn future sporting heroes to which the Emirati public can aspire. The trio of willing junior drivers intend to follow in the footsteps, or perhaps most pertinently, the tailwind of Qassimi, who has managed to assemble three points in his outings in this year's WRC.

There is a train of thought that Qassimi bought his way into the sport of rallying, but such a notion does the ability of the UAE's only WRC driver more of a disservice than any unforeseen tyre change. He would have collected more points after finishing the second day in Italy in seventh place. He could not account for mistakes among his mechanical team that saw him penalised. He was walloped with a 10-minute service penalty. Qassimi was crestfallen, but feels rallying and the UAE's aspirations are of mutual benefit.

"I think the junior programme has been a great idea," says Qassimi. "They can gain experience in every event. I feel there is an eagerness among the boys to gain experience, and to try to improve themselves." The UAE has developed an interest in pursuits that produce the inimitable roar of rally cars. The ADTA sponsor the WRC as a destination partner at a time when the sport has been hamstrung by the withdrawal of several teams. From a financial aspect, Abu Dhabi has been like a rescue car.

Suzuki and Subaru have both departed the manufacturers' championship due to arduous costs. The capital hosts the annual Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, which at times resembles a scene from the wacky races. Various cars cut across desert country at a blinding pace. The UAE is involved in the season-opening round of both the FIA Cross Country Rally World Cup and the FIM Cross Country Rallies World Championship.

A Formula One race and the Fifa Club World Cup are the most notable entries in Abu Dhabi's sporting diary, but rallying has a bewitching effect on its enthusiasts in this region. There would appear to be an overwhelming desire within the ADTA to bring a WRC rally to the UAE. "I would hope we would have some good news on that soon, but it is important that we are behind such a move as a city and an emirate. I feel we are ready for it, but the timing has to be right for it," said Ahmed Hussein, the Deputy Director General of ADTA.

"Rally has a wide spectrum. The WRC has a natural backdrop. Mountains, rivers and lakes. You can feel and smell these natural assets. That is the attraction in rallying, and something that is appealing to market." Anything that does not kill you, makes you stronger, as they say. Latvala learned his trade on frozen ponds in Finland at the age of 10. The junior driver Al Mansoor studied a degree in financial economics in Canada, but used his time to cover dirt tracks and snowy highways in North America.

"One day, I would like to be in the WRC. That has to be the ultimate goal for me," said Al Mansoor. "I have always had a passion for driving, and driving fast cars. "I have had that since I was a kid. I did some circuit racing when I was at university in Canada, but my interest in rallying began when I got back to Abu Dhabi and heard about this junior programme. "It is a fantastic opportunity for me. In Canada, I tried a car out in different conditions in summer and in snow, so that obviously helps me in rallying and how a car reacts to different conditions.

"We have also been to Norway with the junior programme. "You have to know all different techniques to deal with ice and snow. "You have to understand different terrains, different temperatures and how this affects the car. I think that has been of a significant benefit to me." The junior driver programme does not take in the next stage of WRC, the Acropolis Rally in Greece, but there will be no respite for Latvala and Hirvonen while they speed around the steamy tracks of Athens flying Finnish flags, but carrying the banner of Abu Dhabi.

dkane@thenational.ae