Qtel Qatar International Rally on Thursday

Defending FIA Middle East rally champion Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah and Italian co-driver Giovanni Bernacchini will lead a 33-car field over the start podium of the Qtel Qatar International Rally on Doha’s picturesque Corniche on Thursday afternoon at 3.30 pm.

The revised two-day, all-desert, special stage rally will kick-start another season of FIA Middle East Rally Championship action, with competitors from the GCC and as far afield as Australia, the UK, Ireland, Italy and France blazing a dusty and rocky trail between the opening Qatar round and the final event in the UAE in December. Other rallies will take place in Kuwait, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Syria and Cyprus.

Al-Attiyah is chasing an eighth Qatar Rally win in as many years, having equalled Mohammed Ben Sulayem’s seven successive wins in Jordan (1996 to 2002) last year, although the Emirati still holds the record after his unrivalled record in the Dubai Rally.

The UAE’s Sheikh Khalid Al-Qassimi and Rashid Al-Ketbi and Saudi Arabia’s Yazeed Al-Rajhi line-up against the Qatari in a trio of potent S2000 cars, but the more established Group N entry is strong as well and co-drivers from Australia, Italy, Ireland, the UK and France add that extra international flavour to the entry.

The Qatar Motor and Motorcycle Federation (QMMF) is supporting a trio of Subaru Imprezas under the Qatar Rally Team banner for last year’s championship runner-up Misfer Al-Marri, Khalid Al-Suwaidi and Mubarak Al-Hajri. All three are more than capable of achieving a podium finish and Al-Marri will make his first appearance alongside new Italian co-driver Nicola Arena. “I really want to start the year with a good finish and points in the championship,” insisted Al-Marri. “I want to go one better this year!”

But the main competition is not restricted merely to Qatari drivers. The UAE’s Sheikh Abdullah Al-Qassimi is a former showroom class champion and MERC runner-up and he and British co-driver Steve Lancaster will be hoping to get the new season off to a useful start in their Subaru.

Veteran Michel Saleh has more experience of rallying in the Qatari deserts than anyone on the entry list and the redoubtable Lebanese has lost none of his enthusiasm for the sport over the last 30 years. Jordan’s Amjad Farrah endured a miserable regional campaign last season and his switch to a Subaru Impreza could well bring a change in fortune for the only Jordanian driver ever to win a round of the MERC. Farrah teams up with Nancy Al-Majali for a second term.

Kuwait’s challenge is fronted by Mufeed Mubarak in a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X. The series regular will be under a little more pressure to perform on this occasion as well; his co-driver will be the former F2 champion Meshal Al-Nejadi, making the transition from driving to co-driving for the opening round of the 2010 series. “The stages are excellent, a real surprise,” enthused Al-Nejadi. “There are plenty of fast sections, nice technical corners and tracks that will not wreck the cars.”

Qatari drivers dominate the entry list: Jaber Al-Marri has registered his intent to tackle the entire championship with Jake Carlin in a Subaru, 1993 MERC winner Sheikh Hamed Bin Eid Al-Thani is seeded at 14 in his Subaru and Mohammed Al-Marri wheels out his Mitsubishi.

The Qatari contingent is completed by Faisal Al-Attiyah, Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari, Mohammed Al-Mannai, Jaralla Al-Marri, Khalifa Saleh Al-Attiyah, Hamad Al-Marri, Abdullah Al-Rabban and the sole Qatari female entrant Nada Zaidan.

Four Abu Dhabi juniors also feature on the impressive entry list: Sultan Al-Ameri, Bader Al-Jabri, Ahmed Al-Mansoori and Majed Al-Shamsi will drive a pair of Ford Fiestas and two Subarus on their first event of what promises to be an exciting season for Team Abu Dhabi.

“The stages are so much better for the two-wheel drive cars and much improved all round,” added Ulster co-driver Allan Harryman, who is partnering Al-Shamsi in a Subaru. “No places are really rough. The recce was quite straightforward.”

The all-female crew of Amanai Abu Alhuda and Mirvat Bustami represent Jordan alongside Hani Al-Beset and Ammar Hijazi and Saudi Arabia’s Ahmed Al-Sabban, Kuwait’s Essam Al-Nejadi and Palestine’s Daoud Jaber Rami complete the Middle East line-up.

Britain’s David Scialom continues his impressive appearance record in the region with his Subaru Impreza. “I like the stages,” said Scialom. “They are typical of Qatar – a real test. I suppose there is a chance that the top cars will throw some rocks into the track, but that is what you face on any gravel rally when you start at the back of the field.”

“The new stages will really make this a level playing field,” said Nasser Khalifa Al-Attiyah, President of the QMMF. “There will be no excuses. The stages are varied and challenging. There are some very fast sections but we have also introduced some areas where drivers will need to stay on line. Losing the line could easily result in a puncture.”

Select leading drivers will join members of the organising committee at a pre-event press conference at the QMMF from noon tomorrow (Thursday), before crews move to the Doha Corniche for the ceremonial start of the Qtel Qatar International Rally at 15.30 hrs.

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