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Abu Dhabi’s Emirati motorsports ace, Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi, will make his FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) comeback at Rally Portugal this weekend. Al Qassimi’s return to the BP-Ford Abu Dhabi team comes as the record-breaking outfit looks to overturn a five point deficit to lead the Manufacturers’ Championship.

Al Qassimi - who has spent the last three months chasing a second FIA Middle East Rally Championship (MERC) title – has been plying his trade on the sweeping gravel and desert tracks synonymous with the Gulf region, something he hopes will put him in good stead for the notorious Rally de Portugal, running from May 27 to 30 in the sun-kissed Algarve.

And having notched up a Championship points finish in Portugal last year, Al Qassimi is hoping to go one better and draw on his MERC expertise to tackle the fast open roads and winding technical sections of the 355.32 kms course.

“Portugal has been good to me in the past – I hope it is again. Last year I finished eighth and I am confident that I can either replicate or better that result this time round,” said the 33-year-old Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA)-backed driver.

Rally de Portugal is the last of a cluster of five gravel rounds before the season switches to asphalt in July after the mid-season break, and BP-Ford Abu Dhabi and its ‘Flying Finns’ – Mikko Hirvonen and Jari-Matti Latvala – know a top draw points haul is essential if they are to challenge Citroen Total for the coveted Manufacturers’ Championship.

And Latvala – who notched up his third competitive win in Rally New Zealand earlier this month – is upbeat about his chances as he hopes to put his 2009 Rally de Portugal horror crash, which was watched more than 800,000 times on YouTube, behind him.

"I've developed a completely different attitude to my driving this season in my job as number two in the team. That role has helped me to understand the sport better. It's not only about being fastest, it's just as important for a driver to be consistent and finish rallies to fight for the title. It's working well, but I'm not 100 per cent there yet and I need to keep working," said the 25-year-old.

"The stage where I crashed out will be used again this year and when I drive through it during the recce I will slow down and take a quick look where we went off. I will be changing my pace notes for that corner! But I've put the crash behind me and I won't treat that stage any differently in the rally itself.”

Abu Dhabi’s lead driver, Hirvonen, is also eager to better last year’s second place finish as he sets his sights on navigating the gravel-laden Portuguese tracks, the Finn’s speciality surface.

"It's a medium-fast rally and quite technical with plenty of corners over crests, so it's important to be precise with both pace notes and driving lines. Conditions look as if they will be hot and dry and that will be tough for the tyres. The roads have a hard base and on the second pass, once the loose stones have been swept away, the grip will be good, but abrasive, so we'll have to manage our tyres well," said Hirvonen, who sits eight points adrift of his teammate and fellow countryman in the drivers’ standings.

BP Ford Abu Dhabi has finished on the podium in an exceptional four of the five rallies so far this season, and with the return of Al Qassimi, the team will be running a three-car pursuit for the first time since February.

The action gets underway on Thursday, May 27 with a Super Special Stage in the Algarve Stadium.

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