DOHA: Nasser Saleh Al Attiyah and Italian co-driver Giovanni Bernacchini led a nail-biting 2013 Qatar International Rally, the opening round of the FIA Middle East Rally Championship (MERC), by just 4.8 seconds after six new timed special stages to the west of Doha on Friday.
Driving a Ford Fiesta RRC, the Qatari had been involved in a frantic tussle with Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi (Citroën DS3) and British navigator Scott Martin over the rocky desert stages and mere seconds had separated the pair all day.
The defending regional champion, who is bidding for his 10th Qatar Rally win, eventually finished the day with three stage wins and a tiny overnight lead.
“Today was not a day to push too much,” said Attiyah. “The new stages here were very hard on the cars. Tomorrow they are smoother and we can go faster. But it is not easy.”
Saudi Arabia’s Yazeed Al Rajhi made his traditional flying start, but a little over exuberance on the crucial third stage cost him the lead and his place in the rally.
Qassimi and Attiyah took up the fight thereafter, with Qatar’s Abdulaziz Al Kuwari and Khalid Al Suwaidi trailing in their wake in a pair of Ford Fiestas.
The Qatari duo reached the overnight halt in third and fourth places. Qassimi held fifth after Jordan’s Alaa Rasheed was forced out in the fifth stage. Rookie Emirati Mohamed Al Mutawaa led the new two-wheel drive category in his R3 Citroën DS3 and Qatar’s Kuwari held the initiative at halfway in the hotly contested Group N section with his Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X. Young Abu Dhabi junior driver Mohamed Al Sahlawi ran out of spare tyres on his debut and was forced into SupeRally on Saturday, as puncture-related incidents decimated the original 18-car field. Only 11 cars reached the finish.
Attiyah led 17 rivals into the new 21.81km Al Shabhana stage for the first time. Tactics would come into play from the outset and all eyes were on whether the Qatari and his closest rivals would push hard to try and take the early advantage.
The nine-time rally winner set the target time of 10min 48.1sec and edged into a 5.5-second advantage over Rajhi, with Qassimi a close third.
Rajhi caught the dust of Qassimi and was granted a three-minute starting gap for the second special, despite puncturing two tyres. It was proof he had been at ‘full attack’.
Kuwari and Suwaidi were fourth and fifth, but Kuwait’s Meshari Al Thefiri dropped six minutes to the leaders and Jordan’s Zaid Dahshan retired with fuel pump issues at the end of the stage.
The 24km of the new Umm Wishah stage followed and Attiyah reached the flying finish in 11min 58.1sec, but he was pegged back by a flying Qassimi in the works Citroën.
Rajhi was even quicker and a stunning time by the Saudi pushed him into the overall lead.