Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi registered a dominant victory at the Abu Dhabi Rally yesterday, beating his brother Sheikh Abdullah by a margin of three minutes 5.3 seconds with Qatar’s Abdullah Al Kuwari further nine minutes 11.9 seconds back in third place.
Sheikh Khalid’s victory was all the more impressive because even though he had gone fastest in the super special the previous evening, the Abu Dhabi Racing boss was relegated to sixth in the pecking order after picking up a 30-second penalty.
However, he encountered no such problems yesterday. Putting pedal to the metal, Sheikh Khalid stormed to victory on the 18.71km Ghatoot 1 opener in the morning, 25.9s ahead of Sheikh Abdullah and Khalifa Al Attiyah further back by one minute 11.9s in third.
The second test, the 20.55km Al Jarf 1, went even better for the ADR driver, finishing 38.1s ahead of Sheikh Abdullah and Abdullah Al Kuwari dropping another one minute 09.1s to the leader.
For the third special of the day, the 12.7km Al Maha 1 test, Sheikh Khalid eased off a bit to finish 16s and 36.3s ahead of Sheikh Abdullah and Abdullah Al Kuwari respectively.
The 21.1km Al Taweelah 1 special, however, proved to be productive, with the Abu Dhabi native finishing 21.5s ahead of his brother and faster by 59s over the third-placed Abdullah Al Kuwari.
Having completed the morning loop, Sheikh Khalid went into the mid-day service break a healthy one minute 20.5s ahead of Sheikh Abdullah and extended the gap to three minutes 48.3s over Abdullah Al Kuwari.
After dispensing with the service break, Sheikh Khalid began a re-run of the loop where he had left off in the morning, storming to dominant victories on the final four tests.
Just as in the morning, Sheikh Khalid once again dominated but again slowed down a bit on the return Al Maha 2 stage where he was 16.2sec faster than his brother – nearly the same margin he recorded on the Al Maha 1 special.
Fifteen cars had started the trial event yesterday morning, but by the end of the day, seven had fallen by the wayside and just eight cars managed to complete the rally.
The six-car Abu Dhabi Racing team did well, with all cars finishing, with the exception of Juma Al Falasi who did not start yesterday after going ninth fastest the previous day during the super special.
Speaking after the presentation ceremony, Sheikh Khalid said: “It’s fantastic [the win]; the event was great. Getting one leg of the rally at Abu Dhabi was one of my goals and winning this event has been another success.
“So these two achievements are great for me. Now I want to make next year’s event even better.
“With my skills and experience, it was a good competition to compete in. The drivers did their best and I was controlling my pace. I drove fast in some sections, and I was kind of balancing the pace in others.”
Asked if he was satisfied with the performance of his other five young Abu Dhabi Racing drivers, Sheikh Khalid added: “They are doing fantastic. They are doing really good. I am pleased with their pace, commitment, desire to improve and all the small things they want to learn.
“If they improve from here, they can go on to drive in a world championship event, maybe enter a junior programme. It depends on how they develop over time.”
On whether Abu Dhabi was ready to host a leg of the World Rally Championship, the ADR boss said: “We are now thinking of raising the standard of the Middle East championship. There are still no plans [WRC] and no time frame.”
Sheikh Khalid admitted that he does not have much interest in circuit racing, because “as soon as you jump into being a rally driver, you don’t want to try anything else. I call it a step backwards.”
Meanwhile, second-placed Sheikh Abdullah said: “It was a perfect performance. I did my best but we had some early problems with the car. But we managed to recover as the day went on and finished on the podium.”
And Abdullah Al Kuwari, who completed the podium in third, added: “It was a very good result.
“It was a good performance and there were no problems and it was the first time that I finished third in this event.
“There were no major difficulties, but with the strong field it was good to finish third.”
With the successful staging of the Abu Dhabi Rally yesterday, the capital has now moved a step closer to being included as a round of the FIA Middle East Rally Championship (MERC) from next season.
However, Abu Dhabi, Oman and Iran, who all had their trial events last month, will have to wait until the FIA General Assembly meeting in December in Doha to officially begin celebrating their inclusion in the regional rally series. Abu Dhabi last held a MERC round in 2006.
FIA vice president in charge of Middle East and North Africa region, Nasser Khalifa Al Attiyah, who spoke to Sport360° on Thursday morning, said: “Now that the event is over, I will receive a report from the observer which I will then place before the General Assembly in December.
“There are rules and regulations in place and only after the General Assembly approves the inclusion of Abu Dhabi [in the MERC], will it be incorporated officially in the 2015 calendar. Currently, Abu Dhabi has been given a provisional date and I am hopeful this will be confirmed.”
Al Attiyah added: “Abu Dhabi is very strong and the infrastructure here is of the highest quality. The organisation too is very professional and the Emirate has a very strong rallying history.”
The FIA vice president, who was impressed with the way the event was organised, further said: “I not only support the Abu Dhabi Rally, but all rallies in the region.
“Moreover, I have full confidence in Sheikh Khalid [Al Qassimi] because he is an experienced driver and knows what is required [for a successful event]. Also, there is strong backing from the government of Abu Dhabi.”
Asked what he hopes to achieve by expanding the regional series from the current six to nine rounds from next season, Al Attiyah said: “It’s good to have more rallies in the Middle East and open up the market. We will discover the markets, new young drivers, companies and suppliers around the region.
“This [expansion] will add big value. We are lucky that we have two F1 rounds in [Bahrain and Abu Dhabi], four rounds of the Cross Country Rally; we want to increase the number of motor sport events in the region.
“Also, these and more events mean drivers will have more options to choose from.”
Al Attiyah added that he is keen to discover new regional talent and see them excel on the world stage, both off-road and circuit.
To illustrate his point, the FIA official noted that currently the region boasts drivers at the WRC level in Nasser Al Attiyah, Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi, Yazeed Rajhi of Saudi Arabi and Abdullah Al Kuwari.
So does he foresee a Middle East driver ever winning the FIA World Rally Championship title?
Al Attiyah said: “Nasser Al Attiyah is leading the cross country championship and the MERC. He is also close to winning the WRC 2. His aim is to win three titles this year.”
Speaking from the economic point of view, Al Attiyah pointed out that more events mean suppliers to the motor sport industry will get more business, as well as the airlines and hotels.
“Moreover, I want to prove that my region is the best in the world.”
By increasing the number of motor sport activities in the region, Al Attiyah is hoping the FIA will extend greater financial support to countries in the Middle East.
Looking to the future, Al Attiyah said he is going to make road safety a big priority because “it is a big issue in the region.”
He added: “It’s important to educate young drivers to drive safely and help reduce the number of accidents; they must learn to enjoy their lives.”
The Abu Dhabi Rally Organising Committee has put together an impressive team to ensure the event is of the highest standard, keeping quality and safety in mind.
One of the most prominent members of the core team is Mohammed Al Qadi, formerly with the Automobile & Touring Club of the UAE and Dubai Autodrome, who has extensive rally knowledge. He is curren-tly with the Yas Motor Racing Club.
Another prominent member is assistant clerk of the course, Ahmed Al Sharief. He too is a former ATCUAE employee and was largely instrumental in reviving the national rally series.
It is a credit to the organising committee that they have drafted his services.
Others who deserve a special mention are Hossam Al Masri, also an assistant clerk of the course charged with ensuring safety measures are in place. Al Masri also previously served with the ATCUAE.
Equipment officer Amro Mustafa used to freelance with the ATCUAE and he also has extensive rally knowledge, particularly with the large and varied equipment that is required for the event.