DEAD SEA, Jordan, Oct 17: Qatar’s Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah confirmed his 11th FIA Middle East Rally Championship (MERC) title in 13 years with an emphatic start-to-finish victory in the Jordan Rally, round six of the series, which finished with the stunning backdrop of the Dead Sea on Saturday.
The Qatari and his French co-driver Matthieu Baumel won 18 of the 21 gravel special stages that are some of the most beautiful and demanding in the world. His ninth victory in Jordan also marked a 59th career MERC win to put him just one success away from equalling the 60 victories achieved by Dubai’s Mohammed Bin Sulayem between 1984 and 2002. The winning margin for his fourth successive victory in the Hashemite Kingdom was a massive 29min 31sec.
It was also MERC win number eight for Matthieu Baumel, who duly overtook Jordan’s Khaled Zakaria to become the fifth most successful regional co-driver in history.
“I was happy because Yazeed (Al-Rajhi), Abdulaziz (Al-Kuwari) and Khalid (Al-Suwaidi) were back and pushing today,” said Al-Attiyah. “I did what I had to do. Today, in the morning, I won all five stages. I was driving on the same pace as yesterday. No slowing and no risks.
“Yesterday I chose soft tyres for the first five stages and today I used harder tyres on the front and soft on the rear. The problem with the soft is a lot of movement and it does not suit the stages especially on the later stages. But this is another fantastic win for me and another Middle East Championship title. I am very happy.”
The Qatari, who clinched the FIA World Cup in Morocco last week and could add the WRC 2 title to his trophy cabinet in Spain next Sunday, was in a class of his own. But a fierce battle waged over the closing stages for the runner-up spot.
Despite losing over 23 minutes on Friday with a broken wheel, Qatar’s Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari and British navigator Marshall Clarke began a sterling fight back through the field. They started the final day in fourth and overhauled the Jordanian duo of Husam Salem and Khaled Juma to snatch second place.
“It was important to me to finish in at least the top three for the sponsors,” said Al-Kuwari. “I was not happy with my performance here, especially with the older tyres I have been using. But it’s a good finish after the problems I faced.”
It was fitting that an all-Jordanian team was on the podium and a delighted Husam Salem and co-driver Nancy Al-Majali held on to confirm a second successive victory in Group N and take third overall in their Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX. It was the first podium finish for an all-Jordanian crew since Ameer Al-Najjar and Nicola Fanous finished third in 2008.
“The first stage I did not have the confidence and nor the second either,” admitted Salem. “We change a little the set-up for the third one and it was better. The Baptism stage was excellent for us. I hit the water splash too hard in Baptism and it loosened the sump guard and hit the radiator. But the goal at the start was a podium and we achieved that, so I am happy.”
Khaled Juma has already confirmed the Jordanian national rally title in his Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VII and he and Faris Al-Tal finished the international in fourth and second in Group N. Ihab Al-Shorafa and Rakan Khair were fifth.
Khalid Al-Suwaidi and Al-Attiyah’s former co-driver Giovanni Bernacchini began the second leg under Rally2 after Friday’s problems and looked set for a sixth-placed finish until late technical issues sidelined their Ford Fiesta RRC.
Saudi’s Yazeed Al-Rajhi and Ulster co-driver Michael Orr also restarted under Rally2 and overhauled the Fiat Stilo of Asem Aref and Moad Arja to finish in sixth position.
Al-Rajhi said: “I thought I would get Rally2 after the super special and not at the end of the leg. So I took 100 minutes of penalties. I did not think the first stage would be included in leg one. This should be taken into consideration in the future. The championship needs every competitor when the numbers are low. You have no chance to come back with these penalties. If I did not go to Spain from here, I would not have continued today.”
Lina Hadadi and Barkev Shadian finished as the highest crew running in a secondary rally behind the FIA event. They fended off a challenge from the fellow all-Subaru Impreza crew of Basheer Azar and Bilal Majdalawe.
Leg 2 – as it happened
Al-Attiyah began the final 10 stages with a massive lead of 20min 19.5sec, although his domination of the stage times was sure to end with Al-Rajhi and Al-Suwaidi rejoining under Rally2. The pair were granted starting positions third and fifth on the road, with Group N leader Husam Salem sandwiched between them.
Nasser was quickest again through Syagha in his Ford Fiesta RRC, but Al-Rajhi finished the stage just over three seconds behind and Al-Kuwari began to eat into Salem’s hold on second overall and Juma’s grasp of third. The trend continued through the new Rama special, with Juma reducing Salem’s hold on second to just 44.4 seconds, only for Salem to fight back in Shuna and regain 28.2 seconds.
All the time, Al-Kuwari was closing fast on the pair and was on course for a podium finish if he could maintain his pace without problems. By the end of the Karamah stage he was just over a minute behind Juma and, as crews reached service at the Dead Sea, the gap was just 2.9 seconds.
Al-Attiyah set out into the remaining five stages with an outright advantage of 26min 51.2sec, but second-placed Salem was coming under pressure from Al-Kuwari and needed to defend a lead of 1min 42.1sec through the remaining nervy kilometres.
Al-Attiyah emerged unscathed from the re-run of Syaghah, but he ceded his first stage of the event to Al-Rajhi. Al-Kuwari passed Juma to take the final podium place and began to close in on Salem.
Al-Rajhi was fastest again through Rama, as Al-Kuwari closed to within 9.1 seconds of Salem’s second place. Al-Suwaidi held sixth for much of the day, but failed to arrive at the start of the 19th stage after technical issues forced him into retirement.
Al-Kuwari managed to cruise through into second overall and maintained his position through the remaining two stages to seal 18 valuable championship points – the Qatari taking the fastest time on the final stage. There was no stopping Al-Attiyah either and he held on to confirm an 11th regional title with two rounds remaining. Husam Salem rounded off the podium and won Group N.
Positions after SS21 (unofficial @ 17.00hrs):
- Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah (QAT)/Matthieu Baumel (FRA) Ford Fiesta RRC 3hr 07min 51.2sec; 2. Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari (QAT)/Marshall Clarke (GBR) Ford Fiesta RRC — 3hr 37min 22.2sec; 3. Husam Salem (JOR)/Nancy Al-Majali (JOR) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX — 3hr 41min 37.6sec; 4. Khaled Juma (JOR)/Faris Al-Tal (JOR) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VII — 3hr 43min 30.6sec; 5. Ihab Al-Shorafa (JOR)/Rakan Khair (JOR) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX — 4hr 06min 11.4sec; 6. Yazeed Al-Rajhi (SAU)/Michael Orr (GBR) Ford Fiesta RRC — 4hr 58min 20.6sec; 7. Asem Aref (JOR)/Moad Arja (JOR) Fiat Stilo — 5hr 21min 27.8sec.
Positions after round 6 (unofficial):
- Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah (QAT) — 125 pts; 2. Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari (QAT) — 66 pts; 3. Khalid Al-Qassimi (ARE) — 51 pts; 4. Khalid Al-Suwaidi (QAT) — 32 pts; 5. Khalifa Al-Attiyah (QAT) — 26 pts; 5. Salah bin Eidan (KWT) — 26 pts; 7. Roger Feghali (LBN) — 25 pts; 8. Yazeed Al-Rajhi (SAU) — 23 pts; 9. Nicolas Amiouni (LBN) — 18 pts; 10. Rashid Al-Naimi (QAT) — 16 pts; 11. Husam Salem (JOR) — 15 pts, etc.