CHAMPIONSHIP ON A KNIFE-EDGE AS HIRVONEN PUSHES THE LIMITS IN WALES Impressive Al Qassimi climbs the rankings while Abu Dhabi Juniors battle the weather WALES, 24 October, 2009: The battle for the World Rally Drivers' Championship (WRC) ...
CHAMPIONSHIP ON A KNIFE-EDGE AS HIRVONEN PUSHES THE LIMITS IN WALES
Impressive Al Qassimi climbs the rankings while Abu Dhabi Juniors battle the weather
WALES, 24 October, 2009: The battle for the World Rally Drivers' Championship (WRC) continues in the countryside of south Wales amid pouring rain as BP Ford Abu Dhabi drivers Mikko Hirvonen and Jarmo Lehtinen continue their push for first place. The two Finnish drivers head the overall classifications by one point from Citroen's Sebastien Loeb, but at the half-way stage of Wales Rally GB they have a mountain to climb, currently sitting 25 seconds behind the French five-time World Champion. After 12 gruelling rounds, the Drivers' Championship has now become a straightforward shoot-out between the BP Ford Abu Dhabi and Citroen cars.
The two rally rivals have been neck and neck so far this weekend, with Hirvonen claiming two of the three fastest stage times yesterday afternoon, in doing so taking back much-needed seconds from his Championship rival. The BP Ford Abu Dhabi driver went on to set an impressively fast time at Rhondda, the first of today's stages. Loeb, however, proved his Championship credentials once again by answering with two stunning times on stages eight and nine, to put a mighty 25 seconds between himself and the Finnish maestro going into the midday service.
"It was a great start but something wasn't right on the next two stages," said Hirvonen. "I couldn't make good times and it felt as though something was perhaps jammed in the transmission. On long straights and at the exit of corners it felt as if there was something slowing me down. We won't know what it is until the team looks at the data. The difference is big now and I don't know if there are enough kilometres left to take that time back, but it's not over yet and this is a very tricky rally".
Team Abu Dhabi's Khaled Al Qassimi proved that he too is capable of putting in top performances on the tricky Welsh gravel as he recovered impressively from yesterday afternoon's retirement to move steadily up the classifications. Undeterred by his 10 minute time penalty on Friday, Al Qassimi returned to the Service Park at midday today having moved up 11 places to sit in 43rd position overall at the half-way point. Al Qassimi's Northern Irish co-driver Michael Orr is offering his emirati partner valuable local expertise, having competed in 11 previous Rally GBs, and comes into this contest as one of the most experienced on this terrain.
"Yesterday was disappointing, but we still have a day and a half to take back more time. I am pleased with my driving this morning, and having Michael in the passenger seat gives us an indisputable advantage", commented Al Qassimi.
In the Fiesta Sporting Trophy international (FSTi), the Abu Dhabi Junior Drivers continued to impress on their maiden Rally GB outing. However, as weather conditions worsened their experience was tested to the limit. Those starting later on in the morning suffered from reduced grip on the roads as the gravel surfaces deteriorated in the heavy rain. Majed Al Shamsi, who started the day in third position, experienced problems on the slippery terrain and dramatically rolled his Ford Fiesta on stage seven, forcing him to retire from the rest of the day's stages. Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi team-mates Bader Al Jabri and Ahmed Al Mansoori continued with caution and remain in third and fourth places respectively after nine stages.
As rally fans gear up for what is set to be a thrilling finale to Wales Rally GB on Sunday, in Abu Dhabi final preparations are being put in place for what promises to be an equally exciting finish to the FIA Formula 1 season at the inaugural Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix next weekend. "For motorsport fans across the world and in particular in Abu Dhabi, the next eight days will be unbelievably exciting", said Ahmed Hussein, Deputy Director General of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA). "Anticipation for the Grand Prix is reaching fever-pitch, and it would be wonderful to see a BP Ford Abu Dhabi Championship win this weekend to set the ball rolling. Whatever the outcome of the rally, it has been an incredible season for both Mikko, the BP Ford Abu Dhabi team, and the Abu Dhabi Junior Drivers".