JULAI’A, Kuwait, March 25: Qatar’s Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah may well be able to hit the cruise control button on the final leg of the Kuwait International Rally, after he surged into a staggering lead of 6min 23.2sec after six timed special stages in the southern Kuwait deserts on Friday.
He and French navigator Matthieu Baumel were never troubled during a faultless day, where their Skoda Fabia R5 won every stage to take firm control and push the 11-time regional champion towards a record sixth win in Kuwait.
“A perfect day for our team, really,” reflected Al-Attiyah. “We win all the stages and I have a big lead now. The objectives change now though. We have to conserve that lead and make no mistakes on the last day. It is very important for me to win in Kuwait and extend my lead in the championship.”
A fierce desert battle raged behind the leading drivers in the MERC 2 class that could well become the highlight of the regional championship this year.
Yigit Timur began to up his pace as the day progressed and the Turk snatched the MERC 2 lead and second overall at the end of the sixth stage in a Tok Sport Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X. By the end of the leg, that advantage was a mere 4.1 seconds.
Kuwait’s Meshari Al-Thefiri produced the standout local performance of the day in his Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X to hold third overall and second in MERC 2, despite a minor incident on the second stage when he damaged the intercooler.
“I am very happy to finish the day in the top three,” said Al-Thefiri. “The Turkish guy (Timur) is second. Four seconds between us. I lost time in the sixth stage and the gap is very small. I have the advantage tomorrow, because I know the stages very well. The most important thing is to finish to celebrate winning the national championship.”
Qatar’s Rashed Al-Nuami and Italian navigator Nicola Arena were fourth and third in MERC 2 and Al-Attiyah’s brother Khalifa Al-Attiyah and Cypriot navigator Savvas Laos rounded off the top five in their Subaru Impreza.
The Lebanese duo of Rodolphe Asmar and experienced co-driver Joseph Matar held sixth and Saudi rookie Rakan Al-Rashed and Finnish navigator Jarkko Kalliolepo were seventh. Germany’s Edith Weiss and the Kuwaiti duo of Saleh Ali and Elie Chachati rounded off the 10 survivors.
Qatar’s Khaled Al-Suwaidi and Italian co-driver Giovanni Bernacchini were a comfortable second in their Ford Fiesta R5 until they lost over five minutes with a broken gearbox in stage five and slipped to eighth overall. Ongoing problems cost them further time before they retired before stage seven.
“The stages are really nice. I was not taking risks or adventures. Nasser is not an easy driver to beat, so I was being logical,” said Al-Suwaidi. “I did a mistake with the tyres. I put the hard compound and was afraid of punctures. I will try to push a little more tomorrow.”
“On the fourth stage I have a problem. I lost third gear and continued the stage. On the next stage only the fourth and fifth gears were working. I retired before the last stage.”
The event is being organised by the Basil Salem Al-Sabah Motor Racing Club (BMRC) under the chairmanship of Sheikh Athbi Nayef Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah and in conjunction with the General Authority for Sport.
Day 1 – as it happened
Al-Attiyah headed to the southern extremities of Kuwait to tackle the opening 13.95km Nuwaiseeb special, located near to the Saudi Arabian border, with a lead of 3.8 seconds over Al-Suwaidi. The Qatari set the target time of 7min 55.4sec and that was sufficient to extend his advantage to 20.8 seconds. The writing was already on the wall for his rivals.
Al-Thefiri led the MERC 2 contingent overnight and his Friday morning stage opener of 8min 32.1sec was an impressive start. It gave the Kuwaiti an MERC 2 lead of 21.02 seconds after the opening desert stage.
The third 23.87km Al-Kheiran special was slightly further north of Nuwaiseeb and was located to the east of Kuwait’s highway 40. But it failed to change Al-Suwaidi’s fortunes and another storming time by Al-Attiyah extended his advantage to 42.7 seconds.
Timur was in excellent form in MERC 2 and he snatched the lead from Al-Thefiri with the quickest time after the Kuwaiti clouted a ditch and lost turbo boost. Al-Nuami moved up to third, but the leading six drivers were closely matched and this set up the prospect of a fascinating tussle for the podium.
The final stage of the loop at Al-Zour, close to a major new oil refinery project in the south, offered 23.87km. Al-Attiyah was fastest again and headed towards the midday regroup and service in Julai’a with a lead of 1min 07.3sec.
Al-Thefiri had repaired his damaged intercooler and managed to finish the special in 15min 46.3sec and regained a 17.2-second advantage over Timur at Julai’a. “I was fastest on the first stage and I was close to Al-Suwaidi. The second stage, one kilometre after the start, there was a ditch, and I hit it hard and we hit the intercooler and lost the boost. I competed 20km and lost a lot of time – maybe more than a minute from the times in the local rally. On this stage I did some changes to the intercooler. There was some damage and we fix it and we recovered.”
Leader Al-Attiyah said: “I finish three stages and I am leading and was fastest on all three stages. I feel comfortable and in a safe mood with the Skoda. The Michelin Tyres are working well in Kuwait. Everything is fine.”
A repeat of the three stages was on the agenda for the afternoon and Al-Attiyah beat his morning time by 7.1 seconds, but Al-Suwaidi was in serious trouble and gearbox issues cost the Qatari just under five minutes and dropped him to eighth.
Al-Thefiri was four seconds slower than his morning run, but he inherited second overall and headed towards the re-run of Kheiran 4min 14.2sec behind the outright leader. He managed to extend his MERC 2 advantage over Timur to 20.1 seconds, despite being beaten by Khalifa Al-Attiyah in the stage. All 13 starters completed the special.
Al-Attiyah was noticeably slower in the re-run of Kheiran, although he reached the start of stage seven holding an outright advantage of 5min 08.2sec. Al-Suwaidi’s problems were ongoing and the Fiesta driver continued to haemorrhage time to his rivals with only fourth and fifth gears working and a transmission change required at the end of the day.
Al-Nuami began to apply the pressure on Al-Thefiri and closed to within 5.1 seconds of the Kuwaiti heading to the last stage. But Timur was the new MERC 2 leader, after the Turk set the second quickest time and moved into a lead of 16.9 seconds. Abdullah Al-Kuwari hit turbo trouble and retired.
There were no major dramas for Al-Attiyah in the stage and the Qatari cruised to the overnight halt with a massive lead, but all eyes were on the MERC 2 fight, as Al-Suwaidi retired with his transmission woes before the last stage.
Today, teams tackle the remaining six desert special stages of the event, commencing with the first of two runs through the 16.61km of the Bnaider stage. The ceremonial finish is scheduled for 16.30hrs outside the Safir Hotel and Residences in Fintas, south of Kuwait City.
Timetable of events – Saturday, March 26:
10:00 SS8 Bnaider 1, 10:48 SS9 Arifjan 1, 11:26 SS10 Julai’a 1, 12.06 Service at Julai’a,13:04 SS11 Bnaider 2, 13:52 SS12 Arifjan 2, 14:30 SS13 Julai’a 2, 16.30 Podium finish, Safir Hotel, Fintas
2016 Kuwait International Rally – positions after SS7:
- Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah (QAT)/Matthieu Baumel (FRA) Skoda Fabia R5 1hr 09min 36.1sec, 2. Yigit Timur (TUR)/Ufuk Uluocak (TUR) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X 1hr 15min 59.3sec, 3. Meshari Al-Thefiri (KWT)/Nasser Al-Kuwari (QAT) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X 1hr 16min 03.4sec, 4. Rashed Al-Nuami (QAT)/Nicola Arena (ITA) Subaru Impreza 1hr 16min 28.2sec, 5. Khalifa Al-Attiyah (QAT)/Savvas Laos (CYP) Subaru Impreza 1hr 16min 42.6sec, 6. Rodolphe Asmar (LEB)/Joseph Matar (LEB) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX 1hr 18min 18.3sec, 7. Rakan Al-Rashed (SAU)/Jarkko Kalliolepo (FIN) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX 1hr 20min 18.9sec, 8. Edith Weiss (DEU)/Anne Stein (DEU) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX 1hr 30min 08.0sec, 9. Saleh Ali (KWT)/Othman Hamdar (KWT) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VIII 1hr 30min 38.3sec, 10. Elie Chachati (KWT)/Naji Sfeir (LEB) Subaru Impreza 1hr 33min 58.7sec.