There may have been a small entry in this year’s QMMF Qatar International Rally, but it didn’t detract from one of the most exciting ever final days of a round of the FIA Middle East Rally Championship. Qatar’s talented youngster Rashed Al-Naimi and new Portuguese co-driver Hugo Magalães claimed a dramatic victory, when firm favourite Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah suffered engine issues on the penultimate stage and retired his Skoda Fabia R5. A stunned Al-Naimi also claimed victory in the MERC 2 category, three special stage wins and now leads the regional rally championship by nine points.
“The target here was the win in MERC 2, but to win the Qatar Rally is a complete shock to me and changes my entire strategy for the rest of the season,” said Al-Naimi. “It is a short championship and I have a really good chance to win the title. I had a flat tyre on the last stage and we damaged the suspension, but it was not too bad and I managed to finish and win my first rally in the Middle East. It’s a great feeling.”
The Kuwaiti pairing of Meshari and Fares Al-Thefiri controlled their pace perfectly to bring a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X to the finish in second overall and second in MERC 2. It was a career-best result for the Kuwaiti after he had been denied second place in Kuwait last year by a fuel violation.
There have been rallies around the world in the past with no finishers, but just two finishers in the international was a low point for the Middle East on the championship’s 201st rally since its inception in 1984. Rigid new FIA fuel tank safety regulations had forced five teams out of the international event in any case and, without the support of drivers from the UAE and several other GCC countries, the Qatar Motor and Motorcycle Federation (QMMF) put on an excellent rally, held in part in atrocious weather conditions.
Al-Attiyah won seven of the 11 special stages (SS2 was cancelled) with French navigator Matthieu Baumel, but the team could not repair a broken radiator at the remote service stop and the Qatari managed to coax his stricken Skoda through the next stage with a dying engine and a suspension issue. It proved too much, however, and the Qatari’s 64th MERC rally win is on hold for a few more weeks.
Al-Attiyah said: “We damaged the radiator and, after that, we could not continue because we lost all the water. I was sure that we would have damaged the engine if we had carried on. I did not want to cheat or bend the rules by taking water from somebody. This is the game you know. I think, to have a good race, you also need to have a service between the three stages, like the old rule.
“I hope that we will be better in Jordan. After, we have Cyprus and Lebanon, so we try to score maximum points for the championship. It is not so easy now, but we will see.”
Qatar’s Khaled Al-Suwaidi put up a brave challenge over the opening leg and led the event until the fourth stage. He and navigator Marshall Clarke showed an impressive pace in a Skoda Fabia R5 to win the opening timed test and keep Al-Attiyah’s lead to just 10.4 seconds at the night halt. But he struggled to match the defending champion after the restart on Saturday morning and rolled out of contention in the ninth stage.
Former co-driver Nasser Al-Kuwari delivered a superb performance as a driver in his Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX. With Irish navigator Killian Duffy reading his pace notes, the Qatari set impressive and consistent stage times from the start and, punctures aside, would have challenged for the MERC 2 win had car eligibility not prevented him from starting the international event. Al-Kuwari reached Losail 33min 08.9sec in front of Khaled Al-Mohannadi to take a stunning win in the National Rally.
Al-Mohannadi and Indian co-driver Musa Sherif lost 18 minutes in the eighth stage with technical problems and bounced back to claim second place. Lebanon’s Henry Kahy teamed up with Jordanian Musa Djiyerian to round off the National Rally podium.
Saturday – as it happened
Clear skies and slightly warmer temperatures greeted the four crews running in the International and three in the National Rally to the start of day two and the remaining six special stages to the west of Doha. Al-Attiyah was in fine form from the outset and delivered a crushing blow to Al-Suwaidi’s title ambitions by winning the stage by 20.7 seconds to extend his lead to 31.1 seconds
Al-Naimi pulled 8min 49.20 seconds clear of Al-Thefiri in MERC 2, but would have been demoted to fourth position had the impressive Nasser Al-Kuwari been permitted to take part in the international event. The former co-driver found himself three seconds ahead of the MERC 2 front-runner.
There was no respite for Al-Suwaidi in the first run through Al-Shabana either and the young Qatari found himself a further 8.9 seconds behind the 13-time event winner. Al-Attiyah now had a lead of 40 seconds and that would enable him to control the rally from here to the finish. Al-Naimi extended his advantage over Al-Thefiri to 11min 39sec in MERC 2. Technical issues for Al-Mohannadi enabled Kahy to climb to second place in the National Rally and cost the Qatari 18 minutes. The delays also gave Al-Kuwari a 34-minute lead in the secondary event.
Several competitors had admitted that the 25.46km of the QMMF stage were by far the most demanding of the event and there was a risk of car damage. They should have heeded their own words: the contest was all but settled in Al-Attiyah’s favour when Al-Suwaidi rolled his Skoda Fabia R5 out of contention and virtually gifted Al-Attiyah a 14th victory and Al-Thefiri the provisional final podium place.
Kahy dropped six minutes in the National Rally, as Al-Kuwari found himself 39min 57.4sec ahead, despite puncturing and falling well behind Al-Naimi in the timings.
But it wasn’t all plain sailing for Al-Attiyah either and the Qatari faced a hectic few minutes at the remote service stop in Al-Kharsaah with Matthieu Baumel and four mechanics trying to fix a leaking radiator. He started the subsequent Al-Kharsaah 2 stage after Al-Naimi and ceded 2min 04.4sec to the MERC 2 driver to lead the rally by 7min 46.4sec with two stages to go. It was the first special stage win for Al-Naimi in his second full season of MERC competition. Al-Kuwari extended his National Rally lead to 38min 50.2sec.
Autotek team manager Ken Skidmore confirmed that Al-Attiyah completed the stage with a broken radiator, a dying engine and suspension issues, as he tried to coax the Skoda to the finish. Al-Naimi clocked the target time of 10min 29.3sec. But it was to no avail and Al-Attiyah’s engine expired five kilometres into SS11 and Al-Naimi inherited a shock lead of 24min 40.6sec.
Despite finishing the final stage with a flat tyre, Al-Naimi held on to claim a stunning victory and the lead in both the MERC and MERC 2. His winning margin was a somewhat flattering 25min 28.7sec, but he suffered a late scare when he had to drive back cautiously on the road section with damage to a bent suspension arm. It was a dramatic end to a memorable rally.
The next round of the FIA Middle East Rally Championship will be the Jordan Rally on May 4-6.