x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Dubai 'the most difficult race yet' for Nasser Al Attiyah

Open track offers serious challenge in eighth title quest for the leader.

A top-five finish will suffice for the Championship leader.
A top-five finish will suffice for the Championship leader.

DUBAI // Nasser Al Attiyah has enjoyed such sustained success in the Dubai International Rally that this weekend he could perhaps afford, in driving parlance, to take his foot off the gas.

The Qatari, winner of the past five events in the emirate and seven since 2003, undoubtedly has the experience and talent to triumph again, yet it is an unerring drive that ensures he remains the favourite to add another.

Not only is Al Attiyah attempting to register an eighth victory in Dubai, but he knows a top-five finish would also guarantee an eighth FIA Middle East Rally Championship title, too.

"I'm never relaxed in Dubai," said Al Attiyah ahead of last night's ceremonial start on Emaar Boulevard, in Dubai's Old Town. "Every year I come here with a huge will and my plan is always to win, because I'm also thinking about the Middle East Championship.

"For me, it's a dream to have eight titles and the team are putting everything into this race to prove we deserve it."

However, Al Attiyah faces a serious examination of his ability on the open Dubai track.

Compatriots Abulaziz Al Kuwari, Misfer Al Marri and Khalid Al Suwaidi hold the following three spots in the overall standings going into the season finale, while a strong Emirati contingent, headed by Rashid Al Ketbi and his new Skydive team, provide a threat in 'local' conditions.

"The number of cars and standard of drivers, all coming from big teams, makes this the most difficult race yet," Al Attiyah said. "Although I'll approach it the way I do every year: push to the maximum in one early stage early, then ease off a little to follow the other drivers until the finish. I'm ready to win this event."

While a trio of Qataris represents stiff opposition, it is the proposition of a resurgent Al Ketbi that could most unsettle the defending champion.

The Emirati, having narrowly missed out on the past four Dubai titles, takes to the starting line for the Spirit of the Union special stage - the first of today's six stages - in a more powerful Ford Fiesta RRC, racing under new colours and with backing of Manfred Stohl, the experienced team manger.

"I'm very happy to drive in my home rally, but it's not easy to change cars in one day," said Ketbi, who tested his new wheels only for 150 kilometres on Wednesday. "Maybe I'm a weak in terms of experience in this car, but I hope we get as high a position as possible - the top position.

"We're going flat out. I've forgotten about last year; this is a new rally, new conditions, new event, new car, new everything."

Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi, the World Rally Championship stalwart and twice winner in Dubai, returns to action this weekend following two recent surgeries, and is relishing the opportunity to make it a hat-trick of home crowns.

"This is my home event, so I'd like to do my best to win, although it's not easy especially with challenging the top drivers," he said. "To be successful, I must keep confident so by the end I know I've given it as much as I can."

jmcauley@thenational.ae

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