Entries may be thin on the ground in this year’s FIA Middle East Rally Championship, but the hunt for success in the region’s MERC 2 championship for production-type NR4 cars promises to be fascinating.
Heading into this weekend’s three-day FIA Jordan Rally at the Dead Sea, Qatar’s Rashid Al Naimi tops the standings by nine points from Kuwait’s Meshari Al Thefiri.
But Al-Naimi has decided to switch his attention to a limited programme of events in the European Rally Championship this year and that has opened the door for Al-Thefiri to press on to try and drill home his advantage over the 18 special stages that stand in his way in the Jordan Valley and Dead Sea areas.
While the Kuwaiti and his new Qatari navigator Nasser Al-Kuwari start as favourites to snatch an MERC 2 lead to take to the Cyprus Rally in June, the duo face eight rivals in Jordan – four from the host nation, two from Saudi Arabia and a further two cars from Kuwait.
The MERC 2 section is cost-effective and attractive to amateur teams and various derivatives of the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution dominate the category. Al-Thefiri’s competition from his own country comes from Essam Al-Nejadi and Salem Al-Thefiri, while the experienced drifting champion Saeed Al-Mouri joins Rakan Al-Rashed from the neighbouring Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The host nation’s hopes of claiming the MERC 2 crown and pushing for an overall podium finish rest with Khaled Juma, a returning Ma’rouf Abu Samra, Ihab Al-Shorafa and Ziad Miqdad.
Serving as round four of the FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies, the Qatar event covered a distance of 1,373.82km across five days and threw up unfamiliar surrounds for the Abu Dhabi Racing team.
Saturday’s final Al Zubara stage over a distance of 343.32km posed its own unique challenges, as Al Qassimi set out to balance his pace and protect his overnight position.
The result could have been even better for the team but for navigational issues on days two and three, where they lost precious time after Al Qassimi lost his way on several occasions.
Relatively new to endurance racing, Al Qassimi was pleased with his fourth place and the opportunity to develop his skills even further.
“It was a very difficult day for us as we started as the first car and we got lost after about 48km and so I decided to follow the cars in front of me,” he said. “But when I passed them I got lost again and it was really frustrating because I think I got lost about four times and maybe lost over seven minutes in the process.
“The important thing is we finished and it is a big learning curve for me and I need to learn a lot more in this kind of rally and gain a lot more experience, it is not easy. If you put me back on the stage, I will get lost again.
“The performance of the car is fantastic, that is why I won one stage and was second before that. My team tells me that if we don’t lose direction we can be in the top three which shows the performance is there. The learning curve continues for me.”
Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi Racing Junior Rally Programme driver Mansour Belhelei and co-driver Chris Patterson finished second overall in the T2 category aboard their Toyota Prado.
Abu Dhabi Racing’s Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi and Dubai-based Sam Sunderland set the fastest times in the cars and motorcycles sections respectively in the Qatar CrossCountry Rally on Friday.
Qatar’s Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah and Sunderland now have respective overall leads of 2min 56sec and 12min 34sec after another hot and windy day in the Qatar deserts. Sonik has a large advantage in the quads.
Abu Dhabi Racing’s Al Qassimi managed to edge in front of Poulter over the closing kilometres to win his first stage with a time of 3hr 22min 05sec and climb above Mohammed Abu Issa and into fourth place overall.
Al-Qassimi said: “The first 37km I catch Nasser and I kept behind him and I am learning and I want to see how he is driving. The first two days I lost a lot of time. Today was a good stage.”
Poulter held on to secure the second fastest time and that enabled him to reduce Al-Attiyah’s overall advantage heading into the final day. Poland’s Jakub Przygonski was fourth and holds third overall. But Al-Attiyah had been trouble free throughout and admitted that he slowed to group the front-runners together.
“Yes, it’s close but we did not take any risks,” said Al-Attiyah. “We open all the way and we stop for Khalid (Al-Qassimi) to pass. He does not want to pass. I don’t know why. After the second time, he never gave me the Sentinel. I stopped to let him pass. We decided to continue to bring everyone together for our strategy for tomorrow. I will try and catch Leeroy (Poulter) and stay with him all the way tomorrow.”
Sunderland started the day fourth on the road and defending a lead of 6min 28.9sec in t he bikes. Despite losing his way with two rivals early in the stage, the Red Bull KTM 450 Rally rider fought back to record the fastest time and will now take an advantage of 12min 34sec over Monster Energy Honda team rider Paulo Gonçalves into the final day.
“It’s not done until it’s done,” said Sunderland. “I made a few navigational mistakes early on and had a bit of stress this morning. I pushed a lot after the refuel and it ended up being a pretty good day. There were a couple of mistakes in the road book. From my point of view it was not so clear in a couple of places and it added a bit of confusion. It kind of snowballs. You try to rush after that. I feel strong. The plan is not to make a mistake now, but that isn’t always easy.”
Honda’s Kevin Benavides clocked the second quickest time to move up to fourth at the expense of Pablo Quintanilla of the Rockstar Energy Husqvarna Team. Stage opener Matthias Walkner was third on the stage and holds a similar position in the standings. Ride to Abu Dhabi’s Mohammed Al-Balooshi is eighth.
Gonçalves said: “Until now it was the most difficult stage. I think the road book miss a little information so, at more or less km80, we make a navigational mistake. We lost a lot of time and we arrived around 10 or 12km in the wrong direction. After, in the second part, we were able to try and push. Tomorrow I have an important day to race. The problem is to try and go fast without making a mistake.”
Alexis Hernandez caught Rafal Sonik and the pair rode close together for the much of the stage, but delays before PC1 for Dutchman Kees Koolen enabled Hernandez to climb back to second overall and Koolen also lost third place to Guatamala’s Rodolfo Schippers. Italy’s Camelia Liparoti was running in fifth place before losing a rear left wheel after 252km.