February 1, 2017 – Qatar’s Rashed Al-Naimi kick-starts his challenge for the FIA MERC 2 title at this weekend’s QMMF Qatar International Rally, but the JRM-built Subaru Impreza WRX STi driver faces a strong challenge from a host of Qatari and Kuwaiti drivers entered in the increasingly popular Group N category of the FIA Middle East Rally Championship (MERC).
Cars such as the Subaru Impreza and various derivatives of the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution used to dominate rallying at the front of the leader board but, as rules and regulations changed over the years and World and Regional Rally Cars were introduced by the FIA, the Japanese brands became synonymous with success in the showroom or Group N section for more standard cars that lack the suspension and engine development of their newer counterparts and can be run effectively on lower budgets.
Al-Naimi, 26, was embroiled in a fierce battle for the MERC 2 title last season with Lebanon’s eventual champion Rodolphe Asmar and teams up with Hugo Magalhães – his brand new Portuguese navigator – as he bids to win the title in this year’s five-round championship. Magalhães resides at Viana do Castelo in Portugal and has considerable experience in European and WRC rallies, most recently with the likes of Bernardo Sousa in a Ford Fiesta RRC.
“This is my first event of 2017 and I am so looking forward to taking part in Qatar,” said Al-Naimi who recently arranged a competition to offer a ride to the winner in his Autotek-run rally car. “The goal is the victory in Group N and, perhaps, an outright podium finish.”
Standing in his way are several experienced drivers: Meshari Al-Thafiri, 34, has been a regular on the MERC scene for several seasons and once finished as the runner-up in the esteemed Pirelli Star Driver competition. The Kuwaiti has a new Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X at his disposal and will be co-driven by his brother Fares Al-Thafiri.
Several other Qatari drivers will be hoping to stop Al-Naimi winning on his home sand. Khalifa Saleh Al-Attiyah enjoyed mixed fortunes in a switch to cross-country rallying in 2016 and the brother of 13-time Qatar Rally winner Nasser Saleh has called upon the services of Cypriot Savvas Laos to try and help him achieve the win in MERC 2 in the second of the JRM-built NR4 cars run by Autotek.
Irish co-driver Killian Duffy achieved considerable success at world level with Qatar’s Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari (a former winner of the Qatar International Rally) and Duffy takes a break from working on the sport professionally in the Republic of Ireland to team up with Nasser Sadoon Al-Kuwari in a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX on this occasion.
Saif Al-Naimi is an unknown quantity in an Evolution X with Slovenian co-driver Vili Oslaj on hand to read his notes. Other entrants in Group N include the veteran German female campaigner Edith Weiss.
The Lebanese duo of Henry Kahy and Rony Maroun will be hoping to upset the regular Gulf establishment with their first entry in Qatar with a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VIII. Maroun has been a regular in Lebanese rallies for several seasons with the likes of Nassar Nassib and Joseph Hindy and tackled the recent Sharjah Rally with rookie Mohamad Chebab, the son of former senior Dubai International Rally organiser Faez Chehab.
A predicted change in weather conditions could also be a factor. The State of Qatar has enjoyed warm, high pressure conditions over recent days, but the forecast for rally weekend is a marked change with temperatures dropping seven degrees Centigrade on Thursday and down another four to just 14°C for the opening leg on Friday, before stabilising and warming up on Saturday.
Tomorrow morning (Thursday), cars pass through the FIA’s rigid scrutineering checks at Losail, before the entire field attends a driver’s briefing and five drivers join QMMF President Abdulrahman Al-Mannai at the official pre-event press conference in the LCSC’s Media Centre at 15.30hrs.