Al Wakrah, Qatar: Nasser Saleh Al Attiyah set the fastest time through the opening 2.72km super special stage of the Manateq Qatar International Rally at Al Wakhra, south of Doha, late on Thursday evening.
A time of 4min 01.1sec enabled the Qatari to hold a lead of 23.8 seconds in his new Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 over second-placed Abdulaziz Al Kuwari at the overnight halt. Khalid Al Suwaidi was third.
The Qatar Motor and Motorcycle Federation (QMMF) attracted 16 FIA cars, six national entrants and competitors from 13 nations for the opening round of the FIA Middle East Rally Championship (MERC).
This is the 40th edition of the event and the 35th to be a counting round of the regional series since its inception in 1984. Qatar has been an ever present in the MERC with the exception of 2004 when it ran as a candidate event and this is the 24th occasion that the rally has been the first round of the championship. It is the 211th rally in MERC history.
The opening super special was filmed live by Al Rayyan television and featured two different sections of a purpose-built, floodlit track with drivers competing in pairs and taking their turns on each section of the special.
QMMF President Abdulrahman Al Mannai and Manateq’s CEO Fahad Rashed Al Kaabi flagged the cars off the start podium at Souk Al Wakrah.
Several drivers carried out pre-event testing on Wednesday afternoon. Al Attiyah took the opportunity to shake down his new Volkswagen Polo GTI R5.
Nasser, the 13-time winner said: “It’s fantastic. A great feeling for the first time in the Polo. I get support from VW Motorsport. Qatar is a major investor in the company. We see what we can do. In this moment, we only have the support for the MERC. I would also like to do some European Championship events. I will do my best to win this race. The new stages in the north are a little bit tricky. They are far away from service and, tomorrow, two stages and repeat and without remote service. So it will not be easy.”
Sheikh Hamed bin Eid Al Thani won the regional title in 1993 and had made a surprise return to special stage rallying after a long stint in cross-country events.
The Qatari said: “This is the first time that I drive the R5. The last time I drove a car like this was a Group A (Toyota Celica) in ’94 or ‘95. I made test yesterday, around 10km, but the car was easy to drive. I don’t have the experience with saloon cars for a long time, but I hope to do well and go to the finish without a problem.”
Abdulaziz Al Kuwari returns to action for the first time since the Qatar event in 2016. “I tested for a short time and I need to get back into it,” said Abdulaziz, who is hoping to extend his programme to more events this season. “I need to decide whether to drive like a taxi and make sure I finish or push a little.”
Khalid Al Suwaidi made a late co-driver change and lined up at the start with Adel Abdulla in the Motortune Ford Fiesta R5 that his co-driver had driven to second overall last November.
Adel is only the second individual in MERC history to finish inside the top two as a driver and co-driver – he finished second in the Qatar Rally as a navigator to the late Misfer Al Marri in 2006. Qatar’s Mubarak Al Hajri won the event in 1993 as a co-driver with Nasser Khalifa Al Attiyah and in 1995 with Khalifa Al Mutaiwei and finished second overall as a driver in the 2011 Qatar Rally with Emirati Arif Yousef Mohammed.
There were late technical dramas for the two MERC 3 contenders: Henry Kahy’s crew changed the engine in the defending champion’s Škoda Fabia for an Evolution 1 version from Italy and Asem Aref was forced to fit a standard gearbox after damaging his transmission earlier this week.
Lebanon’s Nadim Zaide retired his Renault Clio with electrical issues before the start of the Manateq Qatar National Rally.