x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Sheikh Khalid handles gravel stages with aplomb at Rally Australia

The UAE's Al Qassimi is looking to better his ninth place in Portugal in April, while Sebastien Ogier is closing in on the driver's title.

Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi was first to tackle the difficult gravel stages on Saturday at the Rally Australia. Andre Lavadinho / World Rally Championship
Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi was first to tackle the difficult gravel stages on Saturday at the Rally Australia. Andre Lavadinho / World Rally Championship

The UAE’s Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi is in the running for his best performance of the World Rally Championship season at Rally Australia.

Partnered by British co-driver Scott Martin in his Abu Dhabi Citroen Total DS3, the Emirati driver came through another difficult leg today, after being first to take on the treacherous gravel stages, and rose to ninth place on completion of four demanding special stages.

While he was 64.9 seconds behind eighth-placed Australian Nathan Quinn, with another six testing stages remaining, Al Qassimi could yet improve on his ninth-place finish at Portugal in April.

The precarious nature of the event was highlighted when Northern Ireland’s Kris Meeke rolled and went out of the rally on the third stage of the day while holding fourth place in his Citroen Abu Dhabi DS3. Both Meeke and co-driver Chris Patterson were unhurt.

At the front of the pack, Frenchman Sebastien Ogier’s 42 seconds overall lead from Finland’s Mikko Hirvonen, who drives the other Citroen Abu Dhabi DS3, put him within touching distance of the WRC drivers’ title.

It was another particularly challenging day for Al Qassimi, who started first on the road, as he had to contend with the worst of the loose gravel, which was gradually swept off the track to create a smoother passage for the cars running later.

This factor was most evident on the day’s 49.9-kilometre opening stage, a fast and flowing section with big corners, crests and jumps, along with small sections of asphalt dotted along the route.

“That was very difficult, with a lot of loose gravel, and we had five or six anxious moments,” Al Qassimi said. “The next stage [14.84km] had some nice sections but was also tricky.

“You needed to predict where the bumps will come.”

With the two stages both being run twice either side of a lunch-time service halt, Al Qassimi bettered his aggregate time by a minute and 35 seconds on the second loop before the rally took another break ahead of two evening runs of the 1.6km super special spectator stage at Coffs Harbour.

The rally finishes tomorrow.