Al Qassimi is relishing this weekend's race in Finland, a special place for rallying, and says he is driving smarter - but that does not mean he's forsaking his title.
Sheikh Khalid, 'King of the Jumps', back where it all began
For someone whose eyes are habitually trained forward, a professional necessity when negotiating high-speed corners, crests and straights is your trade, Sheikh Khalid al Qassimi is, for once, looking back. On the eve of his 27th World Rally Championship (WRC) start at this weekend's Rally Finland, al Qassimi - the Arab world's most successful WRC driver in terms of points scored - is returning to where it all began.
"I'm back where I started," said the Sharjah resident, by telephone from Jyvaskala. "Finland is always a special rally for me. The speed and commitment requires a different style and I love it here. OK, it is just like any other event in terms of points, but rally drivers are always aware of Finland's importance, significance and history to the sport." Al Qassimi would know. In three years with the BP Ford Abu Dhabi team, the 2004 Middle East series (MERC) champion has undergone a nuts and bolts WRC education. In the time since he was handed a team berth as part of Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority's partnership with manufacturers Ford, al Qassimi, 37, has graduated from "feeling like a schoolboy" to being one of the most recognisable drivers in the series.
"I've made a big jump from when I first started with the team," al Qassimi said. "I'm much more committed over blind crests and going into fast corners. I'm going faster and more mileage always improves you. "Every race builds confidence and develops my skills. Rallying is in the details, it's about the accuracy of pace notes and knowing specific braking points. I can adapt my style better now." Al Qassimi's fourth Rally Finland start comes as the Nordic event's traditional three-day schedule has been reduced by a third, organisers having taken advantage of new FIA regulations.
"I like the idea," al Qassimi said. "It will be challenging and more of an endurance rally. There will be less road sections and that can only help, but we won't know until we try it. Obviously it will be tougher on drivers and crews though." The new, two-day route will force the field to drive for up to 14 hours a day. It represents a draining task, but one the Emirati is ready for following a rare, pre-rally opportunity to test and fine-tune his Focus WRC this week.
"It's been two months since my last rally, in Portugal, which is a long break to be out of the car," said al Qassimi, who is also contesting a full MERC calendar this season. "I've had a test this week and the two to three hours in the car have been a great help. I have discovered a feel for the car already and that will help me this weekend." Part of al Qassimi's allure in WRC circles is his ability to produce fearless, flying leaps at full-speed.
Two years ago, al Qassimi was crowned "King of the Jumps" by his fellow drivers after he hit a Finnish crest at a speed in excess of 150kph and landed, cleanly, some 55 metres down the stage. Can fans expect a repeat? "I don't know," al Qassimi said. "Maturity is better than just going gung-ho at this level. OK, I am the King of the Jumps, but I need to be clever. Things can happen when you go all-out like that, but maybe I'll push for another big one."
A single jump, or a particular rally, however, will never be more important that continuing the progress that has made him the Arab world's unofficial WRC ambassador. "I will analyse my performance over the whole year, not just my result here," said al Qassimi. "I judge the whole season, not just one rally." If he were to, however, one gets the impression that one round would undoubtedly be Rally Finland. firstname.lastname@example.org
Driver Country Car Points S Loeb France Citroen 151 S Ogier France Citroen / Citroen Junior 100 M Hirvonen Finland BP Ford Abu Dhabi 86 JM Latvala Finland BP Ford Abu Dhabi 80 P Solberg Norway Private / Citroen 78 D Sordo Spain Citroen / Citroen Junior 67 M Wilson UK Stobart M-Sport Ford 40 F Villagra Argentina Munchi's Ford 26 H Solberg Norway Stobart M-Sport Ford 24 K Raikkonen Finland Citroen Junior 15 Other K al Qassimi (17th) UAE BP Ford Abu Dhabi 2 Manufacturers Points Citroen 232 BP Ford Abu Dhabi 185 3. Citroen Junior 125 4. Stobart M-Sport Ford 98 5. Munchi's Ford 40