Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah cruised through the final six gravel special stages of the Manateq Qatar International Rally to seal a convincing victory by the margin of 3min 29.6sec on Saturday.
A record-breaking 14th victory in his home event also marked a remarkable 70th MERC victory in the 211-event history of the FIA Middle East Rally Championships since 1984. Al-Attiyah’s French co-driver Matthieu Baumel duly claimed his third win in Qatar and a career 18th in the MERC.
The success also marked the first outright FIA championship rally win for Volkswagen’s Polo GTI R5 that made its debut at the WRC in Spain last October and claimed WRC 2 success in Sweden in February with Norwegian driver Ole Christian Veiby. Customer Polos have already won national events in Belgium, Norway, Sweden and Latvia this year.
Al-Attiyah won each of the 11 special stages. He said: “The first win for the Polo in history in the Middle East. The car and the team were working very well. We learn a lot from this race. It was fun to drive. I get the feeling quickly, like I know the car very well. Now we prepare for Jordan. It’s important that we stay in the Middle East Championship.”
Baumel added: “I have 18 wins but I am not at the level of Nasser (70). The last two years we had problems and we retired here in Qatar. This year, with the new car, we were a little bit scared, but the car was perfect. No punctures also. A small scare with a sensor set-up last night but, I guess, this was because it was a new car. It was a good week.”
Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari got to grips with his Škoda Fabia R5 as the event progressed and he and British co-driver Marshall Clarke finished in a comfortable second place.
Al-Kuwari said: “Good rally and we enjoyed a lot. We were safe and clean. This is a good sign that I am driving safe. We need more time in the car in the desert to improve the set-up. Nothing better than second place behind Nasser to help me to continue. I congratulate him for the win.”
Sheikh Hamed bin Eid Al-Thani, the 1993 regional champion, claimed his first podium finish at the event since 2010 to give the host nation a first 1-2-3 finish since Al-Attiyah’s last home win in 2016.
“I am so happy about the third position. I also thank Dale (Moscatt), my-co-driver. He taught me so much inside the car. This car is like a new toy. It is beautiful. It is fantastic to drive. I just need a little more experience. I also drive a little safe to go to the finish.”
Veteran Nasser Khalifa Al-Attiyah managed to stave off a late challenge from Khalid Al-Suwaidi to conserve fourth overall in the battle of the two Ford Fiesta R5s.
Kuwait’s Meshari Al-Thefiri mixed it with the R5 cars for much of the rally before slipping back to sixth overall after the penultimate stage. The Mitsubishi driver’s consolation was a massive winning margin of 18min 34.1sec in MERC 2.
Italy’s Stefano Marrini was the leading non-Arab driver in seventh overall and a distant second in MERC 2. Qatar’s Rashid Al-Mohannadi and Abdulla Al-Kuwari were eighth and ninth and Oman’s Abdullah Al-Ruwahi rounded off the top 10.
Defending MERC 3 champion Henry Kahy got the defence of his title off to the perfect start with 11th overall and first in the two-wheel drive category. Jordan’s Asem Aref closed off the FIA finishers in 12th.
Jarah Al-Touqi began the last day with a 17min 26.1sec lead in the Manateq Qatar National Rally and finished with a winning margin of 20min 03.4sec. Hamid Al-Qasimi was on a charge over the final day and managed to pass Zakariyah Al-Amri to take second place before retiring on the last stage.
Oman-based Briton Shaun McGonigal failed to restart from third after his Subaru sustained suspension bush damage after a puncture on the fifth stage.
Saturday – as it happened
Several competitors were awarded small time penalties for inadvertently making route deviations during the opening super special stage at Al-Wakrah on Thursday evening. The top seven positions were not affected by the Stewards’ decision, but there some changes to the leader board further down the order.
Two loops of three special stages were planned for Saturday and Al-Attiyah led the way into the opening Eraida stage of 19.39km with a lead of 1min 24.5sec after both he and closest rival Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari had picked up a 10-second penalty the previous evening.
The leader carded an opener of 10min 15.1sec and extended his advantage to 2min 01sec, as Hamed bin Eid Al-Thani pulled further clear of Al-Thefiri in third and Nasser Khalifa Al-Attiyah overtook Al-Suwaidi to snatch fifth after the latter’s R5 lapsed into two-wheel drive with a broken front axle. Jahman Jaralla failed to enter the overnight Parc Fermé and therefore restart this morning from his allotted position of eighth on the road.
Qatar’s Mohammed Al-Meer failed to restart as well and Lebanon’s Ahmed Khaled returned to service with fuel feed issues and retired his Mitsubishi. Oman’s Saif A-Harthy was also sidelined.
The longest stage of the rally at Al-Dhakira ran for 24.13km. There was no respite for Al-Attiyah’s rivals. He gained over one second a kilometre and another 24.5 seconds on Al-Kuwari. Only 12 FIA cars began the special: Nasser Khalifa Al-Attiyah was on a charge and pulled further clear of a troubled Al-Suwaidi. Kahy dropped over three minutes and slipped behind Abdulla Al-Kuwari into 10th overall.
The Al-Khor (18.18km) special followed before the late morning return to service at the Lusail Sports Centre. Al-Attiyah cruised through the test to extend his lead to 2min 35.1sec and Al-Thani survived damaging a suspension arm in a ditch. Nasser Khalifa Al-Attiyah set the third quickest time, despite two slow punctures, and continued to close in on Al-Thefiri.
Al-Attiyah said: “We are quite happy. The car is working very well and we are learning more and more. We know what we need now. We did a really good time in the first stage. I need to manage now. We don’t have time to test, but I need to keep the same pace with what we have received from VW. For Jordan, we have time to do more testing. Today we change the programme to be on the safe side. We try to keep the pace. I enjoy a lot.”
Third-placed Al-Thani said: “We break the front arm but we arrived on time. The last 100 metres of the last stage, the arm was cut completely. We have enough time to fix at service.”
Al-Suwaidi said: “It’s difficult because I broke the front axle on the first stage and only had two-wheel drive. I finished the three stages like this. We change at service. I had suspension problems yesterday. It was last minute to decide to do the rally and we did not have chance to prepare too much.”
Action resumed with Eraida 2 and Al-Attiyah shaved seven seconds off his morning’s run to increase the lead to 3min 03sec. Al-Suwaidi was able to push harder with a repaired Ford Fiesta and reduced Nasser Khalifa’s hold on fourth to 53.1 seconds. For his part, Al-Attiyah closed to within 16.9 seconds of Al-Thefiri in fourth, as all 12 survivors finished the special.
Al-Attiyah completed the penultimate special 10 seconds quicker than he had in the morning and took a lead of 3min 19.6sec to the final test at Al-Khor. A resurgent Al-Suwaidi managed to overtake Al-Thefiri and take fifth place and he closed to within 16.1 seconds of Nasser Khalifa Al-Attiyah, who also overtook the Kuwaiti.
There was no stopping the rally leader, however, and he lopped another 10 seconds off his morning run to seal the win from Al-Kuwari and Al-Thani. Sixth-placed Al-Thefiri confirmed the win in MERC 2 and a superb final stage from veteran Nasser Khalifa enabled him to stay in fourth.
2019 Manateq Qatar International Rally – positions after SS11 (@ 15.10hrs):
1. Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah (QAT)/Matthieu Baumel (FRA) Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 1hr 56min 18.8sec
2. Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari (QAT)/Marshall Clarke (GBR) Škoda Fabia R5 1hr 59min 48.4sec
3. Hamed bin Eid Al-Thani (QAT)/Dale Moscatt (AUS) Ford Fiesta R5 2hrs 07min 22.4sec
4. Nasser Khalifa Al-Attiyah (QAT)/Nicola Arena (ITA) Ford Fiesta R5 2hrs 08min 58.5sec
5. Khalid Al-Suwaidi (QAT)/Adel Abdulla (QAT) Ford Fiesta R5 2hrs 09min 48.6sec
6. Meshari Al-Thefiri (KWT)/Nasser Al-Kuwari (QAT) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X (MERC 2) 2hrs 10min 47.5sec
7. Stefano Marrini (ITA)/Nicolas Garcia (ARG) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X (MERC 2) 2hrs 29min 21.6sec
8. Rashid Al-Mohannadi (QAT)/Yousef Juma (JOR) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X (MERC 2) 2hrs 34min 12.6sec
9. Abdulla Al-Kuwari (QAT)/Hugo Magalhães (POR) Subaru Impreza (MERC 2 2hrs 35min 25.0sec
10. Abdullah Al-Ruwahi (OMN)/Ata Hmoud (JOR) Subaru Impreza (MERC 2) 2hrs 51min 04.1sec
11. Henry Kahy (LEB)/Musa Djiyerian (JOR) Škoda Fabia (MERC 3) 2hrs 53min 19.2sec
12. Asem Aref (JOR)/Faris Al-Tal (JOR) Renault Clio (MERC 3) 3hrs 35min 07.6sec
2019 Manateq Qatar National Rally – positions after SS11:
1. Jarah Al-Touqi (OMN)/Issa Al-Wardi (OMN) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VIII 2hrs 38min 22.3sec
2. Zakariyah Al-Amri (OMN)/Abdullah Al-Amri (OMN) Subaru Impreza 2hrs 58min 25.7sec
2019 FIA Middle East Rally Championship – standings after round 1 (unofficial):
1. Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah 39pts
2. Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari (QAT) 30pts
3. Hamed bin Eid Al-Thani (QAT) 24pts
4. Nasser Khalifa Al-Attiyah (QAT) 19pts
5. Khalid Al-Suwaidi (QAT) 16pts
6. Meshari Al-Thefiri (KWT) 14pts
7. Stefano Marrini (ITA)/ 7pts
8. Rashid Al-Mohannadi (QAT) 4prs
9. Abdulla Al-Kuwari (QAT) 3pts
10. Abdullah Al-Ruwahi (OMN) 1pt