The Middle East Rally Championship (Merc) opens Friday in Qatar as five UAE drivers will be in action, writes Graham Caygill.
Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi relishes return
While excited about his full time return to the Middle East Rally Championship (Merc), Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi is staying cautious on his prospects of success.
The opening round of the season in Qatar begins Friday, and Sheikh Khalid will compete in his Abu Dhabi Citroen Total Team DS3 car.
It is the first time that a World Rally Championship (WRC) team have entered the car in the series, but Sheikh Khalid believes he and the team will have to face a learning curve before they begin challenging for success.
"I am looking forward to driving again but I think we will need to be patient," he said.
"We are still working on setting up the car for the championship regulations, which are different to the WRC, and the team have to get used to the terrain they will be racing on, but I do think we will be competitive.
"We have tested the car and have covered around 400 kilometres and it feels good. There is work still to be done, but I am happy."
Sheikh Khalid expects his main rival in Qatar to be the home driver Nasser Al Attiyah, the seven-time Merc champion, who has won the last two championships.
"He has to be the favourite because of his record and because this is his home rally," he said.
Sheilk Khalid, who won the Merc in 2004, is mixing competing in all six confirmed rounds of the series, with racing in the WRC too, with the Emirati committed to driving in at least eight rounds, with his first appearance coming next month at the Swedish Rally.
Sheikh Khalid sat out most of last season, competing only in the Dubai Rally, and he said he was glad to be back appearing regularly, although his new role as chairman of Abu Dhabi Racing has kept him busy.
"Yes, I did miss rallying a lot," he said.
"It is something that I had been doing for the last 10 to 11 years so it was a strange feeling not to be taking part, even it was only a little break.
"But my work with Abu Dhabi Racing really kept me busy, and was very demanding, if very satisfying, but I am glad to be back behind the wheel."
Sheikh Khalid is one of five Emirati drivers competing in Qatar this weekend.
Majid Al Shamsi and Badr Al Jabri pilot a pair of Subaru N15s in the new Group N title race, while newcomers Mohammed Al Mutawaa and Mohammed Abdullah Hussain Al Sahlawi, who won a tough Citroen young driver selection process involving 13 drivers at Yas Marina Circuit in November, are each driving a Citroen DS3 R3 2WD in the Merc's newly-introduced two-wheel drive category.
With the five crews being supported by a 30-strong team of engineers, technicians and senior management, Sheikh Khalid believes this is a new dawn for the UAE's Merc involvement.
"I'm excited about the prospect of so many Abu Dhabi Racing-backed Emiratis contesting the series' various championships," said Sheikh Khalid.
"Our collective aim is to boost Abu Dhabi's presence in global motorsport and increase Emirati participation in various motorsport series, so it's great to be here with four other UAE nationals - let's hope we can all make title bids this season.
"Our efforts to attract more young Emiratis into motorsport are already paying dividends and hopefully our new drivers will help inspire a new generation of nationals to try their hands at rallying."
Today's first day in Qatar will consist of six stages, with the event concluding tomorrow with another six stages.
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