The QMMF Qatar International Rally got underway with a 2.27km timed super special stage near the Sheraton hotel on Doha Corniche on Thursday evening.

The event attracted 19 starters from Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Spain, Germany and Jordan. Qatar’s Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah and Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari, UAE driver Khalid Al-Qassimi and the in-form Saudi driver Yazeed Al-Rajhi are likely to be the front-runners when the meat of the action gets underway on Friday.

After completing their timed reconnaissance of the special stages on Tuesday and Wednesday, teams passed through pre-event technical checks at the QMMF on Thursday morning before many of the drivers attended the afternoon’s pre-event press conference.

Defending champion Al-Attiyah has been racing in the Porsche GT3 Cup Middle East since finishing third in the Dakar Rally in January. “I am quite happy to try other things, but it’s nice to be back at this event. I have won 10 times and I suppose that makes me the favourite, but it will not be easy. Driving very fast is not the way to win this rally. I am committed to the Middle East Championship and know that it is important to do well here and finish.”

Al-Rajhi was upbeat about his chances: “so far it’s been a great month and I hope it can continue. This rally is hard on the cars. Normally punctures are an issue and the driver who is careful and does not get flat tyres can be the winner.”

“If anything the stages are slightly smoother than last year and the new one is quite nice,” said Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari, winner of the event in 2012. “Even so, this is Qatar and the nature of the terrain means that there are always stones to watch out for and there is a constant risk of punctures. I want to win this rally. I know that Nasser will push hard, but I want to be there and make sure we keep the record intact – only Nasser and I have won this rally since 2002!”

Jordan's Ala'a Rasheed

Jordan’s Ala’a Rasheed

Sheikh Khalid Al-Qassimi would love to rewrite the history books and be the first Emirati to win in Qatar since then. “All the times I have come here, I have had at least two flat tyres, said the chairman of Abu Dhabi Racing, which is also running five youngsters in two-wheel drive Citroën DS3s. “Sometimes I had eight punctures, maybe only two, but this is the key to success here. Last year I was driving very well and taking the fight to Nasser. I hope to do the same again.”

Transportation issues from Europe meant that Saudi Arabia’s Saeed Al-Mouri switched to running a Skoda Fabia S2000 supplied from Kuwait in the days before the start, while Jordanian Ala’a Rasheed was forced to run a Ford Fiesta R5 after his intended RRC was badly damaged by Abdullah Al-Kuwari in a recent national rally in Kuwait.

Tomorrow (Friday), cars tackle three gravel special stages twice to the west of Doha, starting with the first run through the 21.93km Umm Wishah test. The day’s action is split by a regroup and service stop at the Qatar Aqua Park.

2014 QMMF Qatar International Rally – timetable of events
Friday, February 21

09.00hrs Service A, Qatar Aqua Park
09.53hrs SS1 Umm Wishah 1
10.21hrs SS2 Al Shabana 1
10.54hrs SS3 Al-Kharsaah 1
12.14hrs Regroup and Service B, Qatar Aqua Park
13.22hrs SS4 Umm Wishah 2
13.50hrs SS5 Al Shabana 2
14.23hrs SS6 Al Kharsaah 2
15.23hrs Service C, Qatar Aqua Park