A super special stage of 2.27km along Doha’s picturesque Corniche on Thursday evening from 6pm will signal the green light for another season of the prestigious FIA Middle East Rally Championship.
As the series celebrates its 30th year, the 2014 QMMF Qatar International Rally has attracted the cream of the region’s rallying stars, all of whom have now completed two days’ reconnaissance of 12 demanding gravel special stages in the deserts to the west of Doha.
Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah has won the event in 10 of the last 11 seasons and begins his campaign for a 10th regional title fresh from an excellent showing in the Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge Middle East at the Dubai Autodrome last weekend. Al-Attiyah has 50 MERC wins under his belt, while his Italian co-driver Giovanni Bernacchini is the third most successful regional co-driver of all time, having won 21 rallies.
“This rally has a special place in my heart,” enthused Al-Attiyah. “It’s my home event. It’s fantastic to compete here and I have a winning record on this rally that I want to preserve.”
Al-Attiyah is the undisputed favourite, but Abu Dhabi Racing’s Sheikh Khalid Al-Qassimi has pushed him close in recent contests between the two and the Citroën DS3 driver was pleased with his performance in Sweden two weeks ago. An Emirati driver has not won in Qatar since 2002 and Al-Qassimi would love to end that run. Al-Attiyah’s former co-driver Chris Patterson is partnering Al-Qassimi this season and the Ulsterman is keen to build upon the 24 MERC wins he has already achieved.
Saudi Arabia’s Yazeed Al-Rajhi may well be the Qatari’s closest challenger. He is not short of recent high-speed experience, having tackled three events in as many weekends, and wheels out a similar Ford Fiesta RRC to Al-Attiyah. The opening exchanges between the leading trio are sure to be fascinating.
Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari faces an uncertain season after such an exciting year in 2013. The Qatari will be aiming for the podium in his privately-run Ford Fiesta and both he and Irish co-driver Killian Duffy will be hoping to attract support for the rest of the year.
Three drivers represent Kuwait in Qatar; Saleh bin Eidan leads the way in his Ford Fiesta R5, while Meshari Al-Thafiri (Mitsubishi) and Masoud Al-Saleh (Ford) are also keen to perform well.
Ala’a Rasheed has a joint programme of WRC and MERC events in 2014 and fronts the Jordanian challenge in his Ford Fiesta RRC, with Lebanon’s Joseph Matar on the notes.
While Al-Qassimi will be hoping for a top three finish, the head of Abu Dhabi Racing will also be overseeing the exploits of five younger members of his team. Both Mohamed Al-Sahlawi and Mohamed Al-Mutawaa gained useful experience in 2013 and are joined in Qatar by Mansoor Belhelai and rookies Saeed Bintowq and Juma Al-Falaisi in a quintet of Citroën DS3s entered in the R3 category.
“Things have certainly changed since I was last here in 2007,” said Welshman Craig Parry, who is co-driving for Al-Sahlawi in one of the Citroën DS3s. “Back then, we got the road book and the GPS and away we went. Now we have a tracking system, the route is policed and everyone knows where they stand.”
Qatar’s Abdullah Al-Kuwari is an outsider for a top three finish and the Qafac Rally Team driver certainly has the equipment to cause an upset. Khalifa Al-Hitmi also represents the host nation in a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X, but faces fierce competition in the Group N category from Saudi Arabia’s drifting supremo Saeed Al-Mouri in a similar car.
Nada Zeidan was Qatar’s first female rally driver and she will take part in this year’s event at the helm of a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X, co-driven by Naja Loncar. Zeidan burst on to the scene in the mid-noughties and was the first woman to achieve sports sponsorship in the Gulf region through the Salam International Company in 2003.
She won three regional Ladies Cups between 2003 and 2005 and competed in Dubai, Syria and Lebanon, in addition to representing the State of Qatar in the sport of archery at the 2002 Asian Games in Busan and in Doha four years later.
Italian privateer Antonio Troncoco and German lady driver Edith Weiss complete the rally line-up.
The first Women in Motorsport seminar in the Middle East got underway on Wednesday at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Doha with opening addresses by Nasser Khalifa Al-Attiyah, president of the QMMF and FIA vice-president for sport for the MENA region, and Graham Stoker, the FIA deputy president for sport.
There were also discussions, Q&A sessions and case studies involving the likes of the FIA’s Michèle Mouton, WIM vice-president Randa Nabulsi, MSA international training programme director Susan Sanders, FIA WRC media delegate Hayley Gallagher and FIA commission manager Frédérique Trouve.
Tomorrow (Thursday), cars will be checked for FIA eligibility at official scrutineering before the pre-event press conference takes place at the QMMF from 2pm. The ceremonial start is scheduled to get underway from 6pm and precedes the first timed 2.27km super special stage, starting at 6.03pm.
Top 10 starters:
1. Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah (QAT)/Giovanni Bernacchini (ITA) Ford Fiesta RRC
2. Khalid Al-Qassimi (UAE)/Chris Patterson (GBR) Citroën DS3
3. Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari (QAT)/Killian Duffy (IRL) Ford Fiesta RRC
4. Yazeed Al-Rajhi (KSA)/Michael Orr (GBR) Ford Fiesta RRC
5. Saleh Bin Eidan (KWT)//Nasser Al-Kuwari (QAT) Ford Fiesta R5
6. Abdullah Al-Kuwari (QAT)/Nicola Arena (ITA) Ford Fiesta R5
7. Ala’a Rasheed (JOR)/Joseph Matar (LEB) Ford Fiesta RRC
8. Saeed Al-Mouri (KSA)/Amr Refai (KSA) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X
9. Mansoor Belhelai (UAE)/Khalid Al-Kendi (UAE) Citroën DS3
10. Meshari Al-Thefiri (KWT)/Mubarak Al-Thefiri (KWT) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X