Attiyah is comfortable winner
Rawahi finishes second on debut in R5 class at the Oman International Rally; Aufi takes MERC 2 honours
Defending champion Nasser Saleh al Attiyah's domination in the FIA Middle East Rally Championship (MERC) continued as he got off to a winning start to the 2020 MERC season with a comfortable victory in the opening round at the Oman International Rally that concluded on Saturday.
Attiyah was on top in the R5 class on all the three days of the rally, which began at the Oman Automobile Association (OAA) headquarters on Thursday.
It was a start-to-finish victory for the 15-time record MERC winner with the Qatari and French co-driver Matthieu Baumel claiming each of the 12 special stages (SS9 was cancelled) in their Volkswagen Polo GTI R5. They romped to a deserving title with a winning margin of 5min 04.01sec in the Oman rally that made its return to the MERC calendar for the first time since 2015.
It was Attiyah’s sixth title in Oman as he tries to break Mohammed Ben Sulayem’s record of seven wins in the sultanate. Baumel has now won the event twice (2015 and 2020).
Oman's 23 year old Abdullah al Rawahi, who was making his debut in R5 class, impressed with a runner-up spot in his Ford Fiesta, edging another Qatari driver Nasser Khalifa al Attiyah to the third spot.
After the victory, Attiyah said, “Thanks to the Oman Automobile
Association for organising the first round of the Middle East Championship. This is my sixth win here. I always like what I see here. I love the stages and the people.”
Rawahi delivered a solid performance with Jordanian codriver Ata al Hmoud. He said, “It was a really good result for us as we finished, despite a power steering problem on the last two stages. I would like to thank the team and everyone at the OAA for bringing this rally back.”
Qatar’s Nasser Khalifa al Attiyah and Italian co-driver Giovanni Bernacchini rounded off the podium places in the third of the Ford Fiesta R5s.
The Omani pairing of Zakariya al Aufi and Ammar al Balushi held the advantage in the MERC 2 category at the start of the day, but were overhauled by Abdullah al Zubair and Emad Juma on the first stage of the opening loop – the 21.57km of the Khoud old village special.
Zubair slipped to third behind Kuwait’s defending regional champion Meshari al Thefiri and his Irish navigator Derek O’Brien after dropping 1min 40sec on the special. Aufi moved ahead again and continued to lead from Thefiri through SS11, despite the Kuwaiti setting the fastest time in the category.
Both Zubair and Jarah al Tauqi retired on the second loop with technical issues and that paved the way for fourth-placed Aufi to pip Thefiri, fifth, to claim MERC 2 honours.
Omani drivers Khalid al Minji and Jassim al Muqahwi reached the finish to end sixth and seventh overall.
MERC 2 winner Aufi said, “It was a tough race. Yesterday we started building up the pace. That was our strategy. We opened the gap to two minutes so the strategy worked quite well. I thank my team from Swab Performance for all their support this weekend.”
The Lebanese duo of Henry Kahy and Rony Maroun rejoined under the Rally 2 regulation and reached the finish in eighth to claim valuable MERC 3 points.
Ghaith al Qasimi took a comfortable advantage of 6min 23.5sec in the final six stages of the Oman National Rally but the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo driver lost out on the National Rally win to Mohammed al Mazroui after late problems. Hamid al Qasimi and Haitham al Zadjali were second and third respectively.
The FIA Middle East Rally Championship resumes with the Manateq Qatar International Rally on April 9-11.
Qatar’s Nasser Saleh al Attiyah (third from right, back row) holds the trophy at the awards ceremony held at the OAA headquarters on Saturday
Nasser Saleh al Attiyah in action
Abdullah al Rawahi in action
Zakariya al Aufi in action