Abu Dhabi Total World Rally Team boss Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi has described the superb success of drivers Kris Meeke and Craig Breen at Rally Finland as a “defining” moment for the team, sport and the UAE.
Northern Irishman Meeke, 37, triumphed Sunday to become the first Briton to win the race. In addition, Irishman Breen finished third as Abu Dhabi attained two podium places.
Al Qassimi, who was instrumental in its foray into the World Rally Championship in 2013, predicts even greater things lie ahead for the team.
“This double podium is a defining moment for Abu Dhabi Total WRT, the sport and Abu Dhabi,” said the 44-year-old, who made his own WRC debut in 2007 and also participated in Finland in the team’s third vehicle.
“The result places an imprint on the WRC calendar. I am so proud of Kris and Craig. I have always had great faith in both drivers and I know they are the future of the sport. I was so preoccupied with the prospect of a double podium for the team that I was just cruising towards the end of the weekend.
“This result proves that we have the pace to challenge the best in the business going forward and I am sure that there are greater things to come. It is very exciting for the team.”
Star man Meeke was delighted to finish ahead of home-crowd favourite Jari-Matti Latvala, a three-time winner of his native rally.
“A little bit crazy to be honest. This is the home of rally and Ouninpohja is the holy grail of stages,” said Meeke.
“To win it how we did – incredible. I’ve been enjoying it like a little kid. It’s been a team effort in the car too – Paul’s (Nagle, co-driver) done an incredible job. What a result.”
Meeke took charge of the rally from the word go, steering his Citroen DS 3 WRC into an 18-second lead at the close of day one and widening the gap at the top to 41 seconds going into the overnight halt on day two.
On the final day, it was all about defending the number one spot and the 37-year-old adopted a variation of caution and aggression to ensure his lead remained intact, going into the service break with a cushion of 34.5 seconds.
Irishman Breen dedicated his third-place finish to his late co-driver Gareth Roberts. The Welshman died in June 2012 at the Targa Florio Rally, a round of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge, in Italy.
“I’m missing my main man and I know he’s looking down on me. When the rally began I never expected to be on the podium; it is a great feeling,” said Breen.
Not only did Al Qubaisi and Patrick Long overcome tricky and challenging conditions in Germany, the drivers also came from behind to start at the front of the grid in Saturday’s race.
The team clocked an average time of 2:06.11, while Al Qubaisi managed 2:10.179.
Long went even faster than his team-mate in 2:01.844.
Al Qubaisi was thrilled to have clocked the fastest time in the Porsche 911 RSR, for what he described as a “very tricky” session in the fourth round of the FIA World Endurance Championship.
“We are having a great weekend with free practice and qualifying,” said the Emirati.”
“Our Porsche 911 RSR is doing an amazing job indeed.
“The first half of the qualifying was very tricky, but Patrick Long did a great job and we got the pole position. We took the right strategy call by having Patrick go second out on slick tyres.”
He added: “We are very happy and the team did a great job and we are now looking forward to the race ahead.”
They finished 0.186 seconds quicker than KCMG, who finished second in the qualifying session.
Aston Martin Racing clocked the third fastest time, who finished 0.361 seconds behind the leaders.
The Emirates-backed outfit are continuing their policy of rotating drivers throughout the season, with the 24-year-old Lefebvre and Kilkenny-born Breen revealing they will work together over the weekend in order to bring home a decent result for the team.
Abu Dhabi come into the 73rd staging of Rally Poland with lead driver Kris Meeke sitting ninth in the standings after six races, with the Briton having won the Rally de Portugal back in May.
Frenchman Lefebvre finished 36th overall in Portugal and is currently 12th with 10 points while 26-year-old Breen is 18th with four points.
“I like Rally Poland and the type of fast stages you get here,” said Lefebvre, who feels a special affinity with Rally Poland.
“A couple of years ago, I won this round in the FIA Junior WRC. And last year, I was fighting for the WRC2 lead when I had to retire due to a mechanical problem.
“This year, I think that I’ll need a bit of time to adjust to the conditions, given that I have never competed here in a World Rally Car. My aim will be to quickly get back to the same performance level that I had in Portugal.
“I’m pleased to team up with Craig. We’ll have to work together but I think that will help us to make progress from a technical point of view.”
Breen, meanwhile, hasn’t featured for Abu Dhabi since the second rally of the season in Sweden back in February, but he insists he’s been keeping himself sharp, while he’s hoping to see more time in the car than he did the last time he featured in Poland.
“It’s been a long break since Rally Sweden,” said Breen. “I’ve kept myself busy, however, winning in the ERC at the Circuit of Ireland, and taking part in testing for the 2017 WRC. But I’m pleased to be back racing in a round of the WRC.
“I have only competed at Rally Poland once before, back in 2013 as part of the European Rally Championship. It rained throughout the weekend and many stages were cancelled, so I didn’t really get anything out of it.”
One of the most popular events of the season, Rally Poland is the Abu Dhabi’s fourth outing of the year, after Monte-Carlo, Sweden and Portugal.