x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Al Attiyah edges closer to Middle East rally crown

Qatari on verge of clinching eighth title while UAE drivers Sheikh Abdullah and Sheikh Khalid have mixed fortunes.

Nasser Al Attiyah tears through the dust on a wet first day of the Dubai International Rally yesterday.
Nasser Al Attiyah tears through the dust on a wet first day of the Dubai International Rally yesterday.

DUBAI // Neither rain nor the spirit of a UAE National Day weekend seems likely to prevent Nasser Al Attiyah from notching up yet another Dubai International Rally triumph and, as a result, this season's FIA Middle Eastern Rally Championship (Merc).

The Qatari put in a near-flawless performance, dominating the first day in Dubai as the fastest driver across all six stages. That puts him today on the verge of a remarkable sixth successive triumph in Dubai – and eighth overall.

If he finishes in the top five – and it is inconceivable, barring an unforeseen incident, that he will not – he will guarantee an eighth Merc title as well.

The news was mixed on the local front. Sheikh Abdullah Al Qassimi, who has participated in the rally across four decades beginning in 1983, had a strong day in his Ford Fiesta, finishing second overall and second-quickest in three of the six stages.

His younger brother, Sheikh Khalid, had to retire after the third stage, two punctures ending what had been an encouraging return to rally driving after a year out recuperating from injuries.

The other prominent Emirati, Rashid Al Ketbi, in a more powerful Ford Fiesta this year, was third fastest over the 150.08-kilometre first leg, held in the Malaiha and Shawka area.

The day had begun with morning rain and ended with heavy thunderstorms and it played a part in the proceedings, some drivers struggling with the conditions.

But Al Attiyah's vast experience saw him through, as he steadily and inevitably built on a 6.7-second lead from the first stage, the 19.05km Spirit of the Union.

After the second stage, the 35km Al Thameed, he was already more than half a minute ahead of his nearest challengers and, by the time he came to Al Thameed again in the second loop (the rally has three stages which they drive through twice), he was well over a minute ahead. He will begin today nearly 90 seconds ahead of Sheikh Abdullah.

"It was a very good day for us," he said. "The first stages were good. The rain made it difficult to see the route but it didn't really affect my driving and we did a good job. The second time around was very hard. But we are here and leading."

Not too far behind - and it will only take one slip-up anywhere for the lead to vanish - was Sheikh Abdullah, who battled through the loss of a front bumper and a hairy moment on Stage 3 when his car was, momentarily, on two wheels to end strong.

"We lost a bumper and during the last two stages the car wasn't getting so much speed because of that but I still kept the lead so let's see how it goes," he said.

"But we had a good day. We almost rolled over at one stage, we went out on one corner, slid off and went on two wheels and I was thinking let's not put it upside down here, but thank God we didn't.

"The weather wasn't very good, so you were trying to get the best line, the sand was holding up but we're here, we finished."

His brother Sheikh Khalid was less happy and though he will start again tomorrow, with the time penalties, his rally is over. That will add to a list of extreme experiences at the Dubai Rally; he won it in 2005 and 2006, but he has had a couple of accidents here and in 2010, his engine blew after he was leading through the first six stages.

"It was bad today, we had a problem with the engine," he said. "The engineer decided to take a good chunk of power out of the engine and I didn't know it, but I felt it later when we came back. That mistake wasn't acceptable and we're going to look at it as the punctures came because I was trying to push the speed because the power wasn't there initially."

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

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