Abu Dhabi’S Al Qassimi up and Running in Epic Rally of Greece
UAE driver says Acropolis event a ‘marathon not a sprint’

Early pace-setter Latvala just behind Citroen duo after stage four puncture Championship leader Hirvonen in fourth after difficult opening leg Tatoi, Athens. 30th May, 2008: BP-Ford Abu Dhabi World Rally Team got its Acropolis Rally of Greece up and running this morning as the treacherous Athens stages lived up to their ‘car wrecker’ billing.

The event’s opening leg consisting of two identical loops of three stages through the Schimatari, Thiva and Psatha runs north-west of Athens.

Widely regarded as the roughest round in the WRC calendar, the UAE’s Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi - driving BP-Ford Abu Dhabi’s third car as part of Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority’s partnership with twice manufacturers’ champions - was quick to point out Grecian success lies in accurate endurance driving as opposed to risky all-out speed sprints.

“If you just try to just go fast, fast, fast you will have a problem eventually,” he said. “The stages are so unforgiving and one good split can easily be followed by a terrible one – it is so rough, some of the bigger rocks take up half the road.

“The main tactic is to keep the car on the road, maintain good pace through the fast sections and be careful going in to blind corners and crests, because anything can be behind them.” After his first run through the morning stages Al Qassimi was in 15th place, 62 seconds behind Munchi’s Federico Vilagra in 10th. However, with boulders the size of televisions littering the perilously rocky stages, Al Qassimi’s steady approach – and the inevitable withdrawals of others in the field – are fuelling speculation he could secure his first WRC drivers’ points this weekend.

The Emirati, however, brushed aside the plaudits coming his way in Athens - the spiritual home of the track and field marathon. “I’ve been cautious. This is in essence an endurance rally, a marathon,” said Al Qassimi.

“The first and second stages went well but I went off in the third. I went too fast into a hairpin andovershot the corner – I only hit some small rocks and some sand so there wasn’t much damagebut I lost about 15 seconds.

“I was getting the feeling this afternoon and then came the puncture, but there is still so much leftin this event. Tomorrow is a long, rough, difficult day, so I’ll focus on one stage at a time. I can’tget carried away thinking about drivers’ points, you just have to stay concentrated and believe in your notes, technique and ability.

“I’m not thinking about my finishing position, just finishing. A good result in Greece is to finish. If my tactics result in a top ten finish, great, but it’s still early and anything can happen,” he added.

In an afternoon drive displaying the Abu Dhabi driver’s increasing maturity at this level, Al Qassimi stayed cool in the oppressive conditions to rank 15th in stages four, five and six – even carrying a puncture which cost him over 30 seconds in the final kilometers of stage six. The Emirati enters the 119.1km of competitive leg two stages tomorrow in 15th place.

Meanwhile, it was the United Arab Emirates capital-backed outfit’s Jari-Matti Latvala who cemented his reputation as the World Rally Championship’s brightest emerging talent with some blistering morning times in round seven of the 15-event series.

The 22-year old won stages one and three before a puncture half way into stage four cost him his place at the top of the leg one standings: “I didn’t hit anything, it was very strange. I didn’t lose too much time and we managed to get the tyre changed before the fifth stage. I had been comfortable pushing hard and going fast, and now I don’t want to slow down tomorrow - I’ll keep going the only way I know how,” added Latvala.

And with Latvala’s team-mate, current drivers’ series leader, MIkko Hirvonen also coming through the first leg of the Greece showcase relatively unscathed, BP-Ford Abu Dhabi’s manufacturers’ points scoring drivers are now perfectly poised for leg two assaults on the Citroens in front of them - Sebastien Loeb for Latvala and Dani Sordo for Hirvonen.

“I started OK but it was similar to Sardinia, I thought I was going well but I was losing time on Loeb, Jari-Matti and the others,” said the 27-year old.

“Being first on the road definitely had an effect but there is more to come from me and I have to keep on pushing – there is still a long way to go and I have to make sure I take advantage of a better road position tomorrow.”

Day 1 Leaderboard
1. S Loeb/D Elena 1h21m34.8s
2. D Sordo/M Marti +15.7s
3. P Solberg/P Mills +59.1s
4. H Solberg/C Menkerud +1m06.0s
5. U Aava/K Sikk +1m15.5s
6. J-M Latvala/M Attila +1m18.9s
7. M Hirvonen/J Lehtinen +1m36.4s
8. C Atkinson/S Prevot +1m36.8s
9. P-G Andersson/J Andersson +2m23.8s
10. F Villagra/J Maria Volta +2m29.3s

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