Al Qassimi succumbs to unforgiving Japanese terrain
BP Ford Abu Dhabi's Flying Finns - Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala - emerged from Rally Japan's opening day confident of making it three wins in a row at the Sapporo-based FIA World Rally Championships (WRC) tenth round.
After a dramatic day of action, Hirvonen and Latvala managed to grab competitive second and fourth positions respectively, setting them up convincingly for Rally Japan's longest day of action on Saturday.
Separated by just 9.4 seconds from day leader, Petter Solberg, Friday afternoon saw a return to form for Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA)-backed Hirvonen.
Hindered by the dry, sandy tracks characteristic of the Far East test, Hirvonen started the day slightly off the pace. However, the 12-time WRC winner found his rhythm after the first service to clock up the fastest times in stages 7 and 8, putting him in a strong position to clinch his third Japan victory.
"We definitely have a solid chance of winning here. We have the speed, so everything should be there. Fingers crossed, if everything goes well, we are definitely going to go for it," said Hirvonen, who narrowly missed out on 2009's WRC Drivers' Championship.
The Japanese terrain is notoriously tough and, as the cars cut up the surfaces, the stages became increasingly rutted, presenting challenges unseen on any other WRC round. Luckily, both Finns excel on gravel and adapted expertly to manage the deep groves.
BP Ford Abu Dhabi's Latvala, who suffered an unfortunate technical failure at the start of the day, put in some consistent performances on the second running of the stages, including a win on stage 5 when he finished 2.5 seconds ahead of Hirvonen.
With two championship wins on gravel already under his belt this season, the young ADTA-backed driver continues to go from strength-to-strength as he displays an increasing maturity.
"There are really big ruts on the stages, it is more like a motorcross track in places and there are really big banks," added Latvala. "We were worried after the first few stages, but I found my rhythm and got a good flow, so I feel quite pleased."
As the WRC competitors finished the day contesting two speed tests on the asphalt in the Sapporo Dome, Latvala was exactly 13 seconds behind Hirvonen and a mere 1.1 seconds behind Sebastien Ogier in third.
Less fortunate was Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi and his co-driver Michael Orr who succumbed to the Far Eastern elements during the morning's opening stage.
Rolling their Ford Focus just two kilometres into their first Rally Japan, the duo had to call time on their adventure, as damage to the car was too severe to restart under SupeRally rules on Saturday.
"I entered a long, fourth gear corner a little too fast," said Al Qassimi. "The road was narrow and as the car slid into a ditch, the impact broke a brake calliper. That threw us against a tree and we rolled. The car ended on its side, right on the edge of the road. Although we weren't hurt, we couldn't get out of the car initially. The car is badly damaged on Michael's side from the impact against the tree. It's frustrating for the rally to end after just 2km, but I can't change that."
However, there is no rest for the Emirati star who will now head directly to Lebanon where he continues to contest the Middle East Rally Championship (MERC) in his campaign to reclaim the title.
"I have to travel now to make it easier for me in Lebanon. It's really difficult over there and I need to go and win," added Al Qassimi. "When you go and do a rally like Lebanon you don't want to back off – you have to do your best to get a good result. I will leave it a day or two to refresh my mind but I need to do something big there."
The WRC action will continue on Saturday across eight stages covering 125.12 kilometres of gravel terrain.