x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Al Attiyah aims to sign off in style at Dubai International Rally

Nasser Al Attiyah is looking to close his quest for the Middle East Rally Championship title by winning the Dubai International Rally.

Sheikh Mansour bin Mohammed, left, and Mohammed ben Sulayem, the former UAE rally driver, second left,drop the flag for Nasser Al Attiyah at the ceremonial start of the Dubai International Rally Thursday night.
Sheikh Mansour bin Mohammed, left, and Mohammed ben Sulayem, the former UAE rally driver, second left,drop the flag for Nasser Al Attiyah at the ceremonial start of the Dubai International Rally Thursday night.

 

It has already been a good year for Nasser Al Attiyah, but it can get even better this weekend with victory in the Dubai International Rally.

The Qatari, who won the Dakar Rally in January, dominated the Middle East Rally Championship (MERC) with four wins from five events to put himself in a strong position to win the title for a seventh time. Now he is close to signing a deal to drive a Citroen in the World Rally Championship (WRC) next year.

That, by anyone's standards, is a strong 12 months, and Al Attiyah wants to finish it with a flourish by triumphing in Dubai in his Ford Fiesta.

"It has been a great year for me, and to win here, [and] to take the championship that way, would be fantastic," the 40 year old said.

"We have two ways of taking the title. Finishing in the top seven will be enough for me, but I would prefer to take it by winning, and that is what I am aiming to do."

Al Attiyah, who missed out on taking the title last year by four points to Misfer Al Marri, has a strong pedigree in Dubai, having won the event six times in the past, and has not been beaten there since 2006, making his combination with Giovanni Bernacchini, his Italian co-driver, a strong favourite when the action starts today .

"There is no secret," he said when asked about his success in Dubai. "I always prepare hard for each event and am ready physically and mentally. I like driving here, and it is like Qatar where, since 2003, I have won nine times, and it is kind of a similar feeling here as I do feel comfortable in these conditions.

"The stages are sandy and more fast [than on other rounds of the MERC] and I enjoy those conditions."

A seventh championship will be a sweet feeling for Al Attiyah, but becoming the first Arab winner of the Dakar Rally, held in Argentina and Chile where he took the title in the cars category of the gruelling 9,618 kilometre event by more than 49 minutes from Giniel de Villiers, was the catalyst for his best year in the sport.

"It was a dream to win Dakar, and to do it and be the first Arab to win it was fantastic," he said.

"It gave me a lot of confidence."

Al Attiyah is hoping to take his excellent form to the WRC next year.

Talks are on-going with the Citroen team on a deal that would see him drive a third car for the French manufacturers alongside Sebastien Loeb, the eight-time world champion, and Mikko Hirvonen, who will race for the team in 2012 after joining them from Abu Dhabi Ford, the team for whom he finished second in this year's drivers' championship.

"I am quite hopeful of this," he said. "I am working very hard for this option. I have a good link with the team and we are pushing for this to happen."

But all attention today and tomorrow will be on the challenging roads around Dubai.

The event began with the ceremonial opening stage last night, but the 800km action starts this morning with the first of six stages today, in the Malaiha and Shawka area.

The final six stages take place tomorrow in the Al Dhaid region, with the ceremonial finish taking place at Emaar Boulevard in Dubai Old Town, at 4.30pm.

AL KETBI OUT FOR A MEMORABLE NATIONAL DAY

He may need fortune to smile on him to win the MERC, but Rashid Al Ketbi is hoping to add a victory in the Dubai International Rally to the UAE’s National Day Celebrations.

The Emirati must win the rally, which starts Friday, and hope that Al Attiyah finishes no higher than eighth if he is to win his first MERC title.

“This is a very important event for me because it is my home rally, and it’s my dream to win it on UAE National Day weekend,” said Al Ketbi.

“I am ready for the challenge and will be going for the win. It will be a big fight between myself and Nasser.”

 

gcaygill@thenational.ae

 

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