Former Ford WRC driver Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi (pictured above) has spoken for the first time since the announcement that Abu Dhabi – and he – will be returning to front-line duty in the World Rally Championship, as partners to Citroën Racing.
A new venture, entitled Abu Dhabi Racing, will be launched in December and takes responsibility for the emirate’s activities in and around the WRC trail. Abu Dhabi Racing will bring together the collective of motor sport stakeholders from Abu Dhabi, including Abu Dhabi Motorsport Management, Yas Marina Circuit and the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi), with the view to use the sport to promote local and regional talent worldwide.
For those who remember Abu Dhabi’s previous partnership with Ford, this is all familiar territory. In 2009-10 Abu Dhabi not only funded the sponsorship of the works Ford squad, including Al Qassimi’s drive, but also a squad of between three and five crews competing in the Fiesta Sporting Trophy International class for 2WD cars supporting several European events.
As with the Ford sponsorship, the soon-to-be-renamed Citroën Total Abu Dhabi World Rally Team will be in the vanguard of the plan, with a three-car team participating in all rounds of the WRC. Mikko Hirvonen will step up to the team leader role, contesting the entire series, with Sébastien Loeb returning for his hand-picked calendar in a second car and Sheikh Khalid returning to drive a third car in his own programme of selected WRC rounds.
“I will not do the full season, it is not possible,” Sheikh Khalid told Sport360 this week. “There will be much more to do once ADR is formally launched in December and I would like to be actively involved in the company’s development from day one. So, while I will do some rounds of the WRC, another factory driver will do rounds that I skip.”
This leaves two of the top seats in the WRC free for a percentage of the season. It is unlikely that an Emirati driver is going to be seen in a works DS3 WRC, however, with the likelihood being that Citroën will seek to retain the very obvious talents of Belgian youngster Thierry Neuville in one car, with several drivers, including Britain’s former IRC champion and MINI WRC refugee Kris Meeke, also in the mix to share the other.
Although the Citroën Racing squad intends to develop the DS3 as an R5 competitor for the new WRC2 class, with its 2-wheel-drive DS3 R3 also likely to be seen in WRC3, it is unlikely that a costly WRC-based ‘junior squad’ from Abu Dhabi is on the agenda. Abu Dhabi Racing is understood to be preparing to enter the most promising young Emirati drivers in national and regional events around the Gulf in the first phase of development as a precursor to international competition.
The board of Abu Dhabi Racing sees Sheikh Khalid as Chairman, with His Excellency Khaled Bin Shaiban, a senior member of the Crown Prince’s Court in Abu Dhabi and board member of Abu Dhabi Motorsport Management, as vice-chair. It is completed by His Excellency Khalid Al Qubaisi, a major figure in Mubadalla, the Abu Dhabi government’s investment arm, who is also an accomplished driver in sports car racing.
Al Qubaisi himself will be responsible for developing the UAE’s talent pool in circuit racing alongside the plans to discover future rally stars. It is highly encouraging to see that the extensive karting facilities in Abu Dhabi are being involved at a boardroom level through Bin Shaiban, indicating that this may well deliver a genuine national programme for young talent in the next few years.
Ultimately it sounds like the various strands of interest and investment in motor sport throughout the UAE is finally being brought into a concerted unit within Abu Dhabi Racing. While on the surface of the announcement so far it seems like business as usual for Sheikh Khalid and Abu Dhabi’s ongoing motor sport sponsorship, the fostering of a genuine motor sport culture in the UAE that justifies the expenditure so far on developments like the Dubai Autodrome and MotorCity, the Yas Marina Circuit, Ferrari World theme park and the returning WRC presence.
Perhaps now they can update their media information, too?