Doha, Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah, the Middle East's most successful rally driver of all time, will lead his rivals into the official start of the 2017 QMMF Qatar International Rally at the Losail international circuit, north of Doha, on Friday morning.
Ahead of the 13-time winner of the Qatar Rally and a winner of a record-breaking 63 MERC events since the start of 2003, lie a dozen carefully chosen special stages in a two-day desert route laid on by the Qatar Motor and Motorcycle Federation (QMMF), which runs under the presidency of Abdulrahman Al-Mannai.
Ten cars and 20 competitors from 10 nations will start the opening round of the FIA Middle East Rally Championship, with Al-Attiyah facing competition from the Regional Rally Cars of fellow countryman Khaled Al-Suwaidi and Kuwait's Masoud Al-Saleh at the front of the field.
The remainder of the line-up is made up of seven teams taking part in the MERC 2 or Group N Championship category and the Jordanian driver Asem Aref running near the rear of the field in a two-wheel drive, near-standard, Renault Clio entered in the MERC 3 series.
Al-Attiyah's experience on the global stage and his in-depth knowledge of the local terrain makes him the clear favourite to seal win number 14 in Qatar and a 13th regional rally success for his French co-driver Matthieu Baumel. But the Qatari's Autotek-run Skoda Fabia R5 is new out of the box and anything could go wrong with new servicing regulations in place this year. Al-Attiyah first used a Skoda Fabia R5 in Lebanon and the WRC event in Germany in 2015 and went on to claim the title in a BRR-run car from the Czech manufacturer's stable last year, winning rallies outright in Qatar, Kuwait and Jordan as well.
Khalid Al-Suwaidi's only MERC victory to date came alongside British navigator Nicky Beech in Kuwait in 2012, but the Qatari, who also drives a Skoda Fabia R5, is long overdue a second success and has called upon the expertise of British co-driver Marshall Clarke on this occasion.
"I have a new focus and am determined to push for my first win in this rally," said Al-Suwaidi. "I really feel that I have the pace to beat Nasser. I took part in several WRC rallies last year and the feeling was there." The sole Ford Fiesta R5 on the entry list is the third of the Regional Rally Cars and will be crewed by the Kuwaiti pairing of Masoud Al-Saleh and Sulaiman Al-Saleh.
"My plan is to drive flat out from the start," said Al-Saleh confidently at the pre-event press conference. "I want to enjoy myself. I want to race against Nasser and Khalid." One late addition to the entry list for this 201st event in the history of the championship is the appearance of Indian navigator Musa Sherif alongside Qatar's Khalid Al-Mohannadi in a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution VIII. The experienced competitor hails from the Kerala region of southern India and has taken part in numerous domestic rallies.
He won the Indian National Rally Championship (INRC) title alongside Gaurav Gill in a Group N Mitsubishi Cedia in 2007, 2009, 2011 and 2013 as part of the leading Team MRF operation.
Experienced Irish co-driver Killian Duffy is sitting alongside Nasser Al-Kuwari and was impressed with the stages on the recce.
"They are much smoother and not as hard on the cars as before, that is for sure, but even the short stages on Friday carry risks. We have no service and need to stay clear of punctures. Saturday's stages are great. It's nice to be back and Nasser certainly has the ability to get into the top three. I guess that is the goal." Officials at the QMMF have modified the format of the 2017 event and there will be no chance to work on the cars at an official service point throughout the entire opening leg that offers 71.62 competitive kilometres.
Two loops of three special stages are planned with one remote refuelling point and no opportunity to work on a damaged car.
"The changes in the regulations will certainly make us think more carefully about taking any risks and avoiding flat tyres and car damage," admitted top seed Al-Attiyah. "It is very easy to lose the rally with a silly mistake and very difficult to make that time back. I have 12 Middle East titles so far and the goal is to beat the record. That is why it's important for me to win this rally. I am 46-years-old now and will not go on forever. But I am enjoying my rallying. It's great to see young Qatari drivers coming through now. I wish everybody well in this rally." Doha-based German female driver Edith Weiss is celebrating her 25th anniversary of competition since her first visit to Qatar back in 1992. She is hoping to tackle the MERC series this year, in addition to Qatar's Sealine Cross-Country Rally and the WRC event in Portugal. The winner of the regional Ladies Cup in 2014 is targeting MERC2 success, but logistical issues with her car meant that she was forced to withdraw from the Qatar International Rally at the 11th hour.
Source: Qatar News Agency