ABU DHABI TRIO EYEING RALLY SWEDEN RAID
Al Qassimi and Team Abu Dhabi Juniors in WRC and PWRC Assaults
Sub-zero temperatures await three Abu Dhabi drivers at this weekend's opening round of the new World Rally Championship (WRC), with Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi, the UAE's highest-grossing WRC points scorer, and two Team Abu Dhabi Juniors making their 2011 bows at Rally Sweden.
At the head of the field, Al Qassimi, the third driver in title-chasing Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team, and Ulster co-driver, Michael Orr, will tackle the Scandinavian event's snow-strewn stages and ice-clad tracks in the Ford team's all-new Fiesta RS WRC.
"It feels great to be back in competition after the winter break. Every season represents a new beginning, although things seem even fresher this year with the new car," said Al Qassimi, who has undergone a one-day snow test in areas surrounding the Karlstad rally base. "Previously, I have not had any opportunities for pre-rally tests, so the time I have spent in the new car on a surface that is different to anything else we compete on has been vital. Sweden will always be the most challenging event of the season for us, but I'm upbeat and confident we can keep on improving."
Al Qassimi's optimism was echoed by Malcolm Wilson, Team Director, Ford Abu Dhabi. "Sweden will be a daunting challenge for Khalid, but he has competed here before and knows what to expect," said Wilson. "He's improved every season and I have high hopes for him to post his best season to date. Khalid drove a similar package to our Fiesta RS WRC in the Middle East Rally Championship last year, so I hope he can stay consistent this weekend and record a result to build on. This is a confidence sport and a solid start will boost his belief."
Elsewhere, the emirate will make rally history when Bader Al Jabri and Majed Al Shamsi - products of Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority's (ADTA) grassroots motorsport initiative, the Junior Driver Development programme - make their Swedish debuts in Team Abu Dhabi's inaugural Production Car World Rally Championship (PWRC) outing.
After two years of strong performances in the Fiesta SportTrophy International, the pair have stepped up to the PWRC as part of ADTA's programme to nurture the next generation of world-class Emirati rally drivers. Their PWRC promotion, where they will pilot more powerful Subaru cars, marks the first time that two UAE nationals have ever competed alongside each other in one PWRC team.
"There is no doubt we will have our work cut out for us in the snow -- all of the drivers will," said Al Shamsi, 31. "This is the sort of challenge that inspires me though; I want to repay the faith that everyone in Abu Dhabi has placed in me. The PWRC will be even more competitive and podiums will be extremely difficult to come by. I am ready, but also realistic."
With the Swedish route featuring 22 stages covering more than 350 competitive kilometres of treacherous snow and frozen gravel, Al Jabri, 27, believes the unfamiliar surroundings will dictate a cautious approach.
"It would be pointless to be reckless and chase maximum speed from the start," he said. "It's a new series, new car, new rally and new surface for me -- there is much to discover and this event will be a real learning experience. That's not to say that I won't be trying to hold a steady pace and attain a strong finish, but to do that you need to stay on the road -- there is no benefit from retiring early and missing out on the chance to experience something which can only benefit me in the long-term."
Rally Sweden, the opening round of the 13-event WRC calendar, takes place from February 10-13.