BP-Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team had a solid start to its campaign against reigning asphalt champions and arch rivals Citroen in Trier, Germany as the ninth round of the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) opened in thrilling fashion.
Abu Dhabi's Flying Finns, Jari-Matti Latvala and Mikko Hirvonen, managed to hold on to third and fourth positions throughout the morning's action, interchanging in stages two and three, to return to first service with Latvala only 38seconds off first place and Hirvonen, after a minor spin, a mere three seconds behind him.
Rally Deutschland's opening stages are notorious for their fast sections linked by hairpin bends that rise and fall in the picturesque countryside. Corners are frequently hidden by tall vines and there is no rhythm to the artificial tracks, a fact that started to get the better of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA)-backed duo as the morning wore on.
Yet consistent driving from the two Finns ensured they kept pace on outright leader, Citroen driver Sebastian Loeb, who has won the last seven Trier events.
"It was okay here but I'm not entirely happy as I made some mistakes in the beginning. I don't know exactly what it was so I am hoping to do better in the second run," said Latvala, who clinched a historic Rally Finland win earlier this month.
"I'm faster here than I was in the last asphalt round in Bulgaria so we've made progress since then. I need to cut out the small mistakes. I've not made any major errors but the small ones have cost some time."
Abu Dhabi's Emirati motorsport ace, Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi, who is making his 2010 asphalt debut in Germany, was not so fortunate after spinning out on the opening 24.01kms Ruwertal stage.
Sliding into a ditch caused some damage to Al Qassimi's Ford Focus, yet with the assistance of his committed fans, the vehicle was returned to the road without problem and he was able to continue to contest the morning's stages.
Determined to make amends, Al Qassimi clinched back-to-back top 12 finishes in the following two stages, finishing 11th and 9th respectively to end the day's mid-way point in 21st, 4m43s off the pace.
"It was quite a shock to come off, but we are grateful that our fans were able to help us get back out to the competition without forfeiting too much time," said Al Qassimi. "It is a shame to have come up against the tricky German terrain so soon in our campaign, but we have a whole weekend of stages ahead of us to make up for it."
Elsewhere, Team Abu Dhabi junior drivers - Bader Al Jabri, Majed Al Shamsi and Khalil Al Shaikh - had their Fiesta SportTrophy International (FSTi) rally start delayed after crashes on the first and second stages resulted in their cancellation. The incident meant the series began on stage three.
Luckily, the three up-and-coming Emiratis got a confidence boost ahead of the FSTi's first asphalt round of 2010, with rally veteran Francois Duval taking time to meet the trio during a packed ADTA hosted media lunch yesterday.
Duval is one of the most experienced names in the sport and boasts an impressive string of previous results in Germany, having taken podium finishes in three of the last four competitions. And with Rally Deutschland renowned for its mixture of track characteristics and frequently changing weather conditions, the ADTA-backed development team was only too happy to take tips on how the perilous course should be handled.
"Our aim is to develop our skills across all the terrains that the WRC throws up to gain as much all-round experience as possible throughout the year," added Al Jabri. "The move from the rough, rocky and twisty roads of Finland a couple of weeks ago, to the smooth and slippery surface of Germany requires a lot of concentration, so gaining advice from the experts provides a great advantage."
The action continues with three more stages this afternoon and two more full days of action in Trier.