x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Sheikh Khalid would rather be safe than sorry in Rally Finland

Caution will be the watchword for Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi during Rally Finland this weekend, the eighth round of the World Rally Championship..

Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi is confident he can continue his progress in the final rallies this year.
Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi is confident he can continue his progress in the final rallies this year.

Caution will be the watchword for Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi during Rally Finland this weekend.

The eighth round of the World Rally Championship (WRC) in Jyvaskyla, which began yesterday, is seen as being one of the most challenging on the calendar with the high-speed gravel tracks full of twists and turns with trees by the side of the road leaving no margin for error.

This is the fifth time that Sheikh Khalid has taken part in the event with his co-driver, Michael Orr, and after crashing out of last year's rally when his car rolled three times after the Emirati clipped a grass bank as he took a left-hand corner, he believes being careful presents his best chance of getting into the points for the third time this season.

"Finland is always very demanding," Sheikh Khalid, who drives for the Ford Abu Dhabi team, said.

"It is very hard to get confident as each stage is so tough, and it is hard to push hard because of the lack of grip that you get from the surface.

"As we have seen here in previous years everyone is usually very closely matched and there is little to separate everyone as the rally progresses.

"As a result, if you make a mistake by running wide or having a spin, even if it is just 10 or 15 seconds that you lose, it can result in you losing a lot of positions on the leader board, which can be difficult to get back.

"I went off last year, but I am confident that will not happen again and I will find my limit in the car and be able to avoid any mistakes."

The 39 year old, whose best result in Finland is a ninth-place finish in 2009, believes a circumspect approach to the event will allow him to be in the top 10 by tomorrow night when the rally finishes.

"I think being careful and looking after the car in the opening stages is the best way to go," he said.

"I will look to build up my confidence as we go on and I can challenge to be in the top 10.

"I think that is achievable. I always aim high."

Mikko Hirvonen, Sheikh Khalid's Ford teammate, also crashed out of last year's rally in a spectacular accident, which saw the Finn's car somersault multiple times down the road on stage four after going sideways off a jump and clipping a bank.

The crash has been viewed on YouTube by more than 500,000 people and shows the dangers of Rally Finland and what can happen if a driver makes a mistake.

Sheikh Khalid said: "That is one of the reasons to be careful here, as even if you are not pushing hard, if one small mistake can prove very costly."

This is the fifth WRC event of the season that Sheikh Khalid is competing in. He has five championship points to his name thanks to finishing eighth in Jordan, and claiming 10th place in Sweden.

Ford changed from the Focus model, which Sheikh Khalid had used throughout his four previous years with the Ford team, to a Fiesta for this season.

Sheikh Khalid said he is still adapting to the new car.

"It has not been easy," he said. "I am getting more confident every time I drive it, but it is about finding the level at which I can push consistently in the car and be comfortable.

"The car is different to last year and it is not easy to adapt quickly but with hard work we are getting there and we have already had some pleasing results this season."

Sheikh Khalid will miss Rally Germany next month as it is during Ramadan, but is looking forward to a busy end to the WRC season.

"I will be doing Australia, Spain and France and I hope to build on the work I and the team are doing with some more points finishes and good performances between now and the end of the season," he said.

"I want to keep improving as a driver and learning and I am confident that I can continue my progress in the final rallies of the season."

Sheikh Khalid was 15th after yesterday's second stage in Finland.

Sebastien Loeb leads the event by 1.7 seconds from his Citroen teammate Sebastien Ogier, with Jari-Matti Latvala, the Ford driver, in third.

Hirvonen, who had been favourite to win the event, is down in 16th after damaging his car with a crash on the opening stage.

Loeb, going for an eighth successive WRC title, leads the championship standings going into the event, 17 points ahead of Hirvonen.

However, Loeb has confessed that Finland is not a popular rally for him.

"It's not my favourite terrain," the Frenchman told wrc.com.

"Maybe these roads don't suit my natural style of driving. On the other hand the Finns are very much at home on them. They probably feel they're taking fewer risks in an environment they know like the back of their hand.

"I remember that I had to give 200 per cent to win this rally [in 2008] and I don't think I will take those risks again."

Today is the first full day of the rally, with eight stages scheduled, and it finishes tomorrow with 11 stages.

gcaygill@thenational.ae