x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Victory in Dubai will be Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi's gift to the UAE

Rally driver has long-term plans for motorsport in the country, but for now his focus is on the Dubai International Rally, which coincides with the UAE National Day, writes Osman Samiuddin.

Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi is looking to celebrate UAE National Day weekend with victory in the Dubai International Rally. Courtesy 2012 Dubai International Rally
Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi is looking to celebrate UAE National Day weekend with victory in the Dubai International Rally. Courtesy 2012 Dubai International Rally

In these pages recently, The National's sports columnist, Ali Khaled, addressed a central question.

What is it, he asked just before the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, about speed that can be so intrinsic to Emiratis?

Khaled had begun with an evocative image of the old Arabian knight: "White headdress flailing in the wind, the fearless horseman tears through the desert dunes beneath a scorching sun."

And it is something of this image that Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi draws from in trying to explain why he loves rally driving.

"I'll tell you something. We by nature, we love the thrill. Even our old grandfathers and forefathers, they are Bedouin and brought up in this part of the world in desert, the challenge with mother nature, the heat, the dust.

"But there was also the thrill of competition. Each tribe had its camels and there was kind of a challenge in that. That has carried into modern life where we have now switched to machines."

Sheikh Khalid, the UAE's foremost rally driver, is back after a year out with injury. This weekend, the National Day weekend no less, he will take part in the Dubai International Rally, traditionally the final leg of the Middle Eastern Rally Championship (Merc). He is not nervous, but he has a strange, explosive history at the event.

Looking forward to a new partnership in WRC

To the average man, there is Formula One and then there is everything else in motorsport. Rally driving is far less sanitised than F1, or any kind of circuit driving. As Sheikh Khalid says it, he got into rally cars only because the karting circuit had become, well, a little meek for him.

"It wasn't anything special," he said. "Before all this I was doing circuit racing, not proper, but a lot of karting. And I got a little bit bored with karting. I wanted to see if there is more thrill in rallying and the moment I jumped in a rally car I knew I wasn't going to be driving around a circuit anymore. It's more thrilling in rally cars than whatever we see. I think the effort you put into rally driving is more than circuit driving."

It is true that rally driving is a wilder, lesser controlled pursuit, or at least it appears that way. It is more prone to the vagaries of human skill and behaviour - and nature itself - than F1, where the long-held truth appears to be that technology and machine has made man not redundant, but secondary.

"In F1 the best car will win and maybe the challenge is different because you have only certain corners where you can overtake," he said. "In rallying, it is different. You are in the mountains, the snow, the desert, in the mud, in the forests, every terrain is a challenge and you just drive through it. It's not a loop, it's lots of kilometres and every 150 to 200 metres there is a different challenge, a different surprise and you need fast reactions and decision-making for that."

This past year, for the first time in nearly a decade, Sheikh Khalid took a break, a break for "reevaluation". The five-year contract for Abu Dhabi Racing - of which he is chairman - with Ford was coming to an end. He needed to tend to some repair work on his own body, general wear and tear from years of driving on what can be a gruelling global circuit.

A break for surgery allowed him to work out the details of a new five-year contract with Citroen and now refreshed, he will be back in the World Rally Championship (WRC) next season, from January at the Monte Carlo Rally, as well as Merc. He is excited about the deal with Citroen though does not want to talk too much about it until the official launch next week.

For now he is concentrating only on the weekend 12-stage rally, at the wheel of a new Ford Fiesta 1.6 Turbo and partnered for the first time by his experienced British co-driver Scott Martin.

Chequered record in Dubai

So, the history at the Dubai Rally. In any case, even before accounting for this, a year's lay-off will not make matters easier and neither will the presence of the Qatari Nasser Al Attiyah, the Merc leader, the winner of the last five Dubai Rallies and a seven-time winner.

Sheikh Khalid has won it twice, in 2005 and 2006, but it has either been glory or disaster and nothing in between. "In 2010 when I last did the rally, I was leading for the first six stages before the engine blew. In 2003 I had a very big accident during it and even in 2005 I had a massive problem with the car as it wasn't really running properly. So I've had good and bad times, 50-50, either good, or completely disastrous."

He sounds relaxed enough about it and though he stresses how important it is to do well this weekend, he is also a man acknowledging a bigger picture beyond it. There is the new partnership and the WRC, but there is also the task, in his capacity as ADR chairman, of unearthing more drivers, of squeezing the natural affinity for speed.

Local rallies across the Emirates, he feels, need to be revived for this and says that something of the kind is in the works in the near future. Otherwise, expecting more young drivers to emerge is "like asking me to make a football team to go and play in the World Cup, but if I don't have an Al Ain or Al Jazira, then how can I do it?"

An Emirati triumph over this most Emirati weekend will do for now. "I'm going in with a relaxed mind. I'll do my best to win, of course, because this is part of what we do, we want to go for glory, to win, but things can happen. Inshallah, it will be great to have a clean run and win this, as a gift to our country for National Day and the President and especially for Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed [Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces], who is a big supporter for us and motorsport. It would be really good to show what we can do."