Emirati motorsport ace, Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi, and the BP Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team’s ‘Flying Finns’ – Mikko Hirvonnen and Jari-Matti Latvala - stormed through the Algarve dust clouds and into a fighting position at the Rally de Portugal Friday mid-way point.
Looking to overturn a five point deficit on arch-rivals, Citroen Total, to lead the Manufacturers’ Championship going into the winter break, the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA)-backed outfit is keen to fire on all cylinders in the sixth round of the WRC, running till 30th May.
And they did not disappoint after Abu Dhabi’s lead driver, Hirvonen, clocked up the fastest time at the event’s opening Super Special Stage in Faro’s soccer stadium. Latvala and Al Qassimi, who makes his competitive return to WRC this weekend after a three month hiatus, also rose to the occasion as they made impressive work of the spectacular floodlit speed test - with its sweeping hairpin bends, a breath-taking jump and tight corners - to finish 11th and 12th respectively.
"It was a great way to start the rally. Although it's only a short stage, it's always good to be leading and it was nice to wake up in the morning in that position," said Hirvonen, who narrowly missed out on his first WRC Drivers’ Championship in 2009.
The next day provided more of a challenge, with the opening four stages in the meandering Portuguese hillside testing the Abu Dhabi racing trio to their limits as the dust clouds and rocky terrain produced poor visibility and unstable surfaces.
Both Hirvonen and Latvala started at the front of the WRC leading pack on Friday, which gave them the arduous task of sweeping the roads from loose gravel – a role which can seriously dent a driver’s timings.
However, all emerged at the day’s first service in strong positions, with Hirvonen in third, Latvala in sixth and Al Qassimi in 12th, with all three raring to tackle the afternoon’s repeat of the stages.
"I'm happy with the car's handling and my driving, and testing on Monday so close to the rally helped me. I made a few small mistakes under-braking in the last stage, but nothing serious. I'm in no rush to catch the guys ahead. Third or fourth would give me a good position in the start order on Saturday," added Hirvonen, who finished 19.9s off the morning leader, Sebastien Ogier of France.
Spurred on by the early success of the team during the opening high octane action, Al Qassimi drew upon his recent exposure to the notoriously tricky terrain of the Middle East Rally Championship (MERC) to apply himself to producing solid and consistent times in the early stages.
“The conditions of the roads are fast and hard. It was very tricky to find a rhythm, which is vital if I am to build up my confidence. I was happy with the first couple of stages, but the last one was a real challenge, so I will look to the afternoon to get the car and my position right,” said the Middle East’s most successful WRC driver.
Meanwhile, following hot-on-the-heels of their Abu Dhabi mentor, Team Abu Dhabi’s Junior Drivers progressed with caution in the Fiesta SportTrophy International (FSTi), tackling the steep tracks and tight turns that set a challenging stage for even the most experienced racers.
The presence of the three young Emiratis in the FSTi at Rally de Portugal makes this the biggest Abu Dhabi rally contingent to compete so far this season. With both the top tier BP Ford Abu Dhabi team challenging alongside the Abu Dhabi juniors, ADTA’s World Rally Programme is represented at all levels and is testament to the operation’s success.
“This is the perfect example of our ongoing commitment to establishing Abu Dhabi as a global motorsports hub. One of the core objectives has always been to nurture prospective Emirati talent and create future Abu Dhabi racing champions, as well as generating awareness of the Abu Dhabi name around the world. To have both ends of the scale represented here in Portugal is a sign of how far the programme has come since its inception in 2007,” said Ahmed Hussein, Deputy Director General, ADTA.