Abu Dhabi motorsport ace, Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi, returns to the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) this weekend for an all new Rallye de France, as he looks to capitalise on the recent form that saw him clinch top points at the FIA Middle East Rally Championship (MERC) in Lebanon.
BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team driver Al Qassimi is also determined to make amends at the new-look, three-day France event following an unfortunate roll during the opening few kilometres at the previous WRC round in Japan.
"Our result in Japan wasn't what we wanted, but I went straight to Rally Lebanon where I was able to claim maximum points for our MERC challenge. It was a successful asphalt event and has given us some assurance ahead of Rallye de France," said Al Qassimi, who notched up an eighth place finish in Germany last month.
Joining Al Qassimi will be Flying Finns Jari-Matti Latvala and Mikko Hirvonen who will lead Abu Dhabi's assault on the season's final pure asphalt round, which runs 1-3rd October outside of Strasbourg.
Rallye de France has been one of the WRC's classic events since it began in 1973, but this year's rally switches from its long-term home on the island of Corsica to a new base in the Alsace region near the German border. The rally offers a mix of road types to challenge competitors, so the writing of accurate pace notes is going to be vital to the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA)-backed team's success.
"We must write pace notes from a blank sheet because we've not driven the roads before, so it's vital we concentrate hard in the recce. We're only allowed two passes through the stages so we must ensure they are as accurate as possible," said 25 year-old Latvala, currently third in the Drivers' Championship.
"My first impressions were that this would be like Rallye Deutschland. But our engineers have looked at the stages and it seems the roads are more similar to those of the Monte Carlo Rally, especially the first leg."
Rallye de France is renowned for a mix of roads that will challenge Al Qassimi and his BP Ford Abu Dhabi teammates to the limits. The opening day in the Vosges blends narrow, bumpy sections with blisteringly fast, wide roads where speeds could top 200kph. The second day is completely different as drivers tackle a labyrinth of countryside roads on flat, open plains. The special stages in the last leg are different again, with a mix of street roads and fast tracks through a military camp.
"It was all about finding a set-up for the kind of roads we expect to find on the rally," said Hirvonen. "The test roads were narrow and bumpy and the surface changed frequently. I expect many changes of rhythm as the roads go from fast to twisty, and wide to narrow. If the pace notes are accurate then that isn't a difficulty. But if, for example, they are too fast when the road switches from a wide section to a narrow stretch, then it can be trickier.
"I wasn't so happy with my driving on the Friday and Saturday morning during the last asphalt round in Germany, so I hope to improve. I'm feeling confident after a good performance in Japan."
Rallye de France will also see the return of the Team Abu Dhabi junior drivers as they continue their battle for the Fiesta SportTrophy International (FSTi) title. Their presence marks the fourth time this season where a full Abu Dhabi contingent has competed side by side on the WRC circuit.
Leading the juniors' charge will be Bader Al Jabri and Majed Al Shamsi, who currently sit second and fourth respectively after a hard-fought, competitive FSTi season.
Al Shamsi, who finished sixth last year, has already taken a win at Rally de Portugal and second place at Rallye Deutschland this season. Whilst teammate Al Jabri has yet to finish outside the podium in all three events he has participated at - a mark of how far the drivers have progressed in their development since ADTA set up the programme in 2007.
As the team looks forward to Rallye de France, all will be concentrating on the challenges that a new course presents. Al Jabri, who favours tarmac, will be looking to take advantage of the sweeping asphalt tracks as he challenges for the championship lead.
"It's been six weeks since we took third place at Rally Germany, so I am itching to get back behind the wheel for the Rallye de France. I have been lucky to finish on the podium at all the FSTi events I have participated in this season, so I am hopeful that I can keep up my good run on the asphalt in France," said Al Jabri.
"I am pleased to be in second place overall at the moment, but with only ten points separating the top three anything could happen and our focus will be on staying calm, driving accurately, and getting our Fiesta R2 home without any problems."