Jan 30, 2021
KRIS MEEKE FASTEST ON OPENING SUPER SPECIAL STAGE IN QATAR
· Qatar’s Al-Kuwari with James Fulton (IRL) Škoda Fabia R5 Evo hold 3rd overall
LOSAIL (Qatar): Northern Ireland’s Kris Meeke and his English navigator Sebastien Marshall finished the opening special stage of the 2021 Qatar International Rally with a 6.6-second advantage over local hero Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah at Katara, north of Doha, late on Friday evening.
Driving a Škoda Fabia R5 on the sealed surface stage, Meeke clocked a time of 4min 14.3sec. The 4.4km stage consisted of two runs and two laps of a purpose-built track. This followed immediately after the event’s pre-event press conference and a ceremonial start where 17 cars taking part in the FIA event and four entered in the Qatar National Rally were flagged away by senior QMMF officials.
“It is going to be a new challenge for me,” said Meeke before the start at Katara. “This type of terrain is completely unique and a lot different to all the rallies I have done in my career. To do a rally in this desert style, for sure, it is going to take me some time to adapt. I am here to learn and try and increase my experience over this type of terrain. Qatar is the only round (MERC) for me at the moment.”
“I have a good chance for this race,” said Al-Attiyah. “I have a lot of experience here, of course. We have a good number of competitors, a strong R5 section and Kris Meeke is competing here for the first time and we have Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari and Khalid Al-Suwaidi. It is a good start for 2021.
Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari posted the third quickest time of 4min 28.6sec in his Škoda Fabia R5 and Khalid Al-Suwaidi rounded off the top four.
“Honestly I feel like a kid when you put him for the first time on a bicycle,” said Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari. “When I was going to do testing, I missed rally cars. I just want to keep driving. Big names are competing and the competition with them will be really good. The stages are nice and not really as rough as usual in Qatar. The plan is to buy the car after the rally and keep driving.”
Defending MERC 2 champion Meshari Al-Thefiri had planned to switch to a Hyundai for the season opener, but the Covid-19 pandemic put paid to those plans and he recorded a time of 4min 51.2sec to hold the lead in MERC 2.
“After a long wait for the car to reach Doha, we managed to be ready at the start line after an excellent job by Motortune Racing fitting a new engine, gearbox and turbo overnight,” said last year’s championship runner-up Abdullah Al-Rawahi who held fifth position overnight. “Unfortunately we had only five kilometres to test the car this morning, but we are looking forward to the next two days.”
Taking place in unprecedented times, one of the region’s most famous motor sporting events has been put together under rigid Covid-19 safety guidelines and staff at the Qatar Motor and Motorcycle Federation (QMMF) have laid on a challenging route through the northern deserts.
Competitors passed their scrutineering and technical checks for FIA homologation compliance on Friday morning at the Losail Sports Centre. They were also joined by three drivers entered in lightweight prototype vehicles in a T3 class that is permitted to take part in the FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies.
The FIA T3 category is not permitted to enter MERC rounds, however, and these drivers are running in a separate Qatar National Rally category behind the main field in their uprated Can-Am and Polaris derivatives.
The FIA has, however, permitted the use of FIA T4 vehicles this season on the gravel rounds of the MERC in Qatar, Oman, Jordan, Cyprus and Kuwait. They don’t have the performance or tuning enhancements of their T3 stable mates but featured strongly at the recent Dakar Rally.
T3 Can-Am Maverick X3s snatched the top three places in the SSV (T3 and T4 combined) category with Chile’s Francisco Lopez holding off the challenge from America’s Austin Jones and Poland’s Aron Domzala.
Normally associated with battling the elements and the toughest off-road terrain in the world, these durable windshield-less vehicles will be an interesting spectacle on shorter special stages that feature in the MERC.
Ulsterman Kris Meeke was competing in the SSV T3 section at the Dakar for the first time and he is one of the front-runners for outright victory this weekend in a conventional R5 version of the Škoda Fabia. Saudi Arabia’s Saleh Al-Saif was a Dakar front-runner for several days in the SSV T4 category and he has travelled to Qatar to compete at the rear of the international field.
Al-Saif is one of the better-known drivers on the Middle East cross-country scene and set some superb stage times on the Dakar Rally. Last year he also won the T3 category at the Ha’il International Rally in February and topped the podium in both Ha’il Bajas in December.
His co-driver is the Spaniard Oriol Vidal, who hails from the small village of Llambilles in northern Catalonia and is a performance engineer in the Superbikes World Championship (WorldSBK), in addition to his involvement in Dakar-type events.
The Lebanese crew of Jad Al-Aawar and Vicken Kanledjian switched to taking part in the Qatar National Rally after pre-event scrutineering. Qatar-based Al-Aawar is a regular competitor in the Lebanese national rally series with a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX and is taking part with a Can-Am this weekend.
His best result came with fifth place and third in Group N at the 2019 Jezzine Rally in Lebanon, but he has also competed in Qatar speed tests and hill climbs in Lebanon. His co-driver Kanledjian lists second overall at the 2017 Cedars Rally as his best result to date with Joseph Hindi.
Al-Aawar is running in a four-car Lebanese team under the Team AMT banner in Qatar alongside MERC 3 front-runner Henry Kahy and MERC 2 competitors Ahmad Khaled and Shadi El-Fakih. The operation runs under the management of 2001 Lebanese national rally series winner Doumit bou Doumit.
The Can-Am Maverick X3 is currently the most popular of the T4 vehicles currently on the world stage, but both Polaris and Yamaha are heavily involved in active competition with their RZR 1000 and YXZ 1000R models and several teams are now focusing their resources on race programmes across the world in the FIA T4 category.
Many insiders see the introduction of the FIA T4 section to the MERC as a very positive step forward to attract up and coming young talent on lower budgets in the future.
Al-Aawar is joined by Qatar’s Ahmed and Khalid Al-Mohannadi and Doha-based Ahmed Allouh in the four-car Qatar National Rally. Aside from Khalid Al-Mohannadi and Russian navigator Kirill Shubin, who are competing in a Polaris, the drivers are at the helm of Can-Ams.
This weekend’s Qatar International Rally is being held under the chairmanship of QMMF President Abdulrahman Al-Mannai, senior committee member Abdulrazaq Al-Kuwari and the QMMF’s Executive Director Amro Al-Hamad.
Competitors will tackle two loops of a pair of demanding gravel stages to the north of Doha. The first pass through Eraida (20.13km) goes live at 10.25hrs and precedes nearby Al-Thakira (20.34km) at 11.00hrs.
After a return to the Losail Sports Centre for regrouping and a 30-minute service, the two timed tests are repeated at 13.10hrs and 13.45hrs.
2021 Qatar International Rally – positions after SS1
1. Kris Meeke (GBR)/Sebastian Marshall (GBR) Škoda Fabia R5 4min 14.3sec
2. Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah (QAT)/Matthieu Baumel (FRA) Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 4min 20.9sec
3. Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari (QAT)/James Fulton (IRL) Škoda Fabia R5 Evo 4min 28.6sec
4. Khalid Al-Suwaidi (QAT)/Hugo Magalhães (POR) Škoda Fabia R5 4min 32.8sec
5. Abdullah Al-Ruwahi (OMN)/Ata Hmoud (JOR) Ford Fiesta R5 4min 35.8sec
6. Meshari Al-Thefiri (KWT)/Nasser Al-Kuwari (QAT) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X (MERC 2) 4min 51.2sec
7. Sheikh Suhaim Al-Thani (QAT)/Hamad Al-Yafei (QAT) Škoda Fabia R5 Evo 4min 53.2sec
8. Henry Kahy (LEB)/Carlos Hanna (LEB) Škoda Fabia 1.6 4min 53.3sec
9. Zakariya Al-Aufi (OMN)/Ammar Al-Balushi (OMN) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX (MERC 2) 4min 58.5sec
10. Ahmad Khaled (LEB)/Musa Djiyerian (JOR) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X (MERC 2) 5min 00.3sec
11. Nasser Khalifa Al-Atya (QAT)/Georges Nader (LEB) Ford Fiesta R5 5min 00.9sec
12. Shadi El-Fakih (LEB)/Samer Sfeir (LEB) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX (MERC 2) 5min 16.8sec
13. Zakariya Al-Amri (OMN/Mohamed Al-Mazroui (OMN) Subaru Impreza (MERC 2) 5min 18.4sec
14. Saleh Al-Saif (SAU)/Oriol Vidal (ESP) Can-Am Maverick X3 (T4) 5min 18.8sec
15. Jassim Al-Muqahwi (KWT)/Thamer Ali Hassan Obaid (ARE) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X (MERC 2) 5min 27.2sec
16. Rashid Al-Mohannadi (QAT)/Yousef Juma (JOR) Subaru Impreza (MERC 2) 5min 58.7sec
17. Mohammed Al-Attiyah (QAT)/Rony Bou Abdo (LEB) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X (MERC 2) 6min 18.7sec
2021 Qatar National Rally – positions after SS1
1. Khalid Al-Mohannadi (QAT)/Kirill Shubin (RUS) Polaris RXR 1000 (T3) 5min 04.9sec
2. Jad Al-Aawar (LEB)/Vicken Kanledjian (LEB) Can-Am Maverick X3 (T4) 5min 05.4sec
3. Ahmed Allouh (QAT)/Firas Allouh (QAT) Can-Am Maverick X3 (T3) 5min 23.8sec
4. Ahmed Al-Mohannadi (QAT)/Mubarak Al-Khulaifi (QAT) Can-Am Maverick X3 (T3) 5min 26.2sec
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