Qatar’s Nasser Saleh Al Attiyah and co-driver Giovanni Bernacchini celebrate after winning the Qatar International Rally, round one of the 2014 FIA Middle East Rally Championship, in Doha yesterday.
DOHA: Qatar’s Nasser Saleh Al Attiyah is used to driving under pressure, but he and Italian co-driver Giovanni Bernacchini were pushed all the way to the finish of a thrilling QMMF Qatar International Rally by fellow countryman Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari yesterday.
Separated by just 5.5 seconds at the start of the second day, Al Attiyah pressed home a slight advantage once Al Kuwari and Irish navigator Killian Duffy suffered a drive shaft breakage. The nine-time MERC champion, driving a Ford Fiesta RRC, duly secured his 11th Qatar win in 12 years and his 51st MERC success on the 30th anniversary of the championship. His winning margin was 30.1 seconds.
“Everyone knows I enjoy competing here in Qatar and it’s a special feeling to win here,” said Al Attiyah, the winner of six of the timed tests. “It was not easy – credit to Abdulaziz for his performance. It’s always important to get points on the board for the championship and winning is always special.”
Second-placed Al Kuwari is a third generation driver, following in the footsteps of his rally driving father Sadoon and grandfather Arhema, who took part in the first Qatar Rally with a Fiat in 1975.
“I gave it my best shot and am pleased with my performance,” said the Qatari, who won five stages. “Nasser’s record here speaks for itself and I am delighted to have pushed him so hard.”
Radiator and tyre issues plagued Khalid Al Qassimi; the Abu Dhabi driver finished third and won two of the 13 special stages alongside Ulster co-driver Chris Patterson.
After first-day gearbox woes, Abdullah Al Kuwari and Italian navigator Nicola Arena climbed into the top five in their Ford Fiesta, edging the Kuwaiti duo of Masoud Al Saleh and Sulaiman Al Helal down to fifth before Al Saleh retired before the final loop of three stages with gearbox issues
Drive shaft problems had sidelined Yazeed Al Rajhi on day one, but the Saudi hit back with consistent stage times yesterday to secure points for fourth place after he overtook Abdullah Al Kuwari on the final stage.
Young Abu Dhabi Racing team member Mohamed Al Mutawaa won the battle of the five junior Citroën DS3 drivers. He and Ulster navigator Stephen McAuley finished a fine sixth and pipped Mohammed Al Sahlawi and his Welsh team mate Craig Parry by 2min 29.5sec.
Jordan’s Ala’a Rasheed, Kuwait’s Meshari Al-Thafiri and third Abu Dhabi junior Mansoor Bel Helai rounded off the top 10. Germany’s Edith Weiss (12th) beat Qatar’s Nada Zeidan (14th) to the top Ladies’ award.
Early yesterday, Al Attiyah trailed Al Kuwari by 5.5sec after Friday’s stages, but clocked out of service late “after changing an anti-roll bar” and incurred a 10-second penalty, thus handing a 4.5-sec advantage to Al Kuwari.
This could have put him behind his rival on the road for the final day and given him a better stage running position, but article 45.4 of the regulations clearly states that the start order for subsequent legs is based upon the classification at the finish of the final special stage of the previous leg.
He duly began day two at the front of the field and was forced to sweep the stage surfaces. In hindsight, Al Attiyah’s team manager Ken Skidmore admitted that the work should have been carried out yesterday morning.
Eight SupeRally cars joined the 10 surviving crew from day one at the start of the 20.90km of the Mekaines stage, although engine-related issues forced Kuwait’s Saleh bin Eidan to miss out.
Al Attiyah was the ‘road-sweeper’ and posted a target time of 10min 53.1sec, but Al Kuwari managed to get inside that and extended his advantage to 5.2sec. Al-Qassimi was even quicker than the Qatari duo to record his second fastest stage time of the weekend, but trailed in third after first day radiator and tyre issues. Spaniard Antonio Troncoso left parc ferme butfailed to start the special.
Al Attiyah was not to be denied and a clean run through Salwa gave him the fastest time and the outright lead by just 3.3sec.
Ala’a Rasheed dropped over three minutes with a puncture and slipped back to ninth overall, as Al Rajhi climbed to seventh and Abdullah Al Kuwari overhauled Al Saleh to snatch fourth.
But Abdulaziz Al Kuwari was in trouble with a broken drive shaft through the longest stage of the rally – the 27.87km of SS9 – and he dropped a further 46.3sec to Al Attiyah and reached service trailing the Qatari by 49.6sec.
Fifteen of the 17 starters made it to service, but Saeed Al Mouri’s disappointing challenge ended with rear suspension failure on his Skoda and Kuwait’s Masoud Al Saleh was not scheduled to go any further with a broken gearbox and lost fifth place.
Could Al Attiyah hold on to his 49.6-sec lead? Al Kuwari was not going to give up without a fight, however, and the Qatari won the stage to reduce Nasser’s lead by 3.5sec. He also won the shorter Salwa re-run and headed towards the final special with a comfortable lead of 46.6sec.
There were no late dramas for the defending champion and he secured a maximum haul of 25 championship points to get his challenge for a 10th regional title off to the perfect start.