MERC: Bahrain: Event preview

2002 FIA Middle East Rally Championship Bahrain International Rally 2002 , round 2 of 7 Middle East'S Top Driver Quartet Set For Dramatic Bahrain Rally Showdown Bahrain International Rally gets underway today Defending FIA Middle East rally ...

2002 FIA Middle East Rally Championship
Bahrain International Rally 2002 , round 2 of 7

Middle East'S Top Driver Quartet Set For Dramatic Bahrain Rally Showdown

Bahrain International Rally gets underway today
Defending FIA Middle East rally champion Mohammed bin Sulayem and co-driver John Spiller will lead an international entry from 11 countries into the two-day Zayani Motors Mitsubishi Bahrain International Rally, which starts today .

The second round of this year's regional series has attracted a strong line-up of the Middle East's leading drivers ready to tackle 19 timed special stages. But the main attention wil turn to the fascinating battle between the Ford Focus WRC of the defending champion and three of his great Middle East rivals.

Sulayem's M-Sport-prepared Focus will be hard-pushed by former regional champion Abdullah Bakhashab, from Saudi Arabia, driving a Marlboro Toyota Corolla WRC, Sharjah's Sheikh Abdullah Al-Qassimi in a second Ford Focus WRC, supported by Adnoc and the Saif Zone Sharjah, and the new Qatari sensation Hamed Al-Sowaidi in his Qatar Rally Team Subaru Impreza.

Sulayem takes the start with a maximum 10 points on the board after his win on the opening round in Qatar last month. But it wasn't all plain sailing: Bakhashab and Ulster co-driver Bobby Willis led over the opening special stage before retiring with clutch problems and Al-Sowaidi set 11 fastest stage times to emphasise his determination to become the first Qatari to take the regional title since Sheikh Hamed Bin Eid Al-Thani's success in 1993.

Sulayem and his qualified team of Ford mechanics from the UK will be up against Bakhashab's tried-and-tested Toyota Corolla, prepared by JM Engineering, a Czech operation. Sowaidi's Impreza is being overseen by a team of Irish mechanics under the management of Gary Emmett, while Al-Qassimi - the defending Middle East Group N champion - wheels out Sulayem's 2001 Ford and will be hoping to add to the four championship points he scored in Qatar on his debut with a World Rally Car.

"Qatar was a great start to the year for us," admitted Bin Sulayem. "It was a tough rally and the pace indicates that this year will be very exciting and difficult. To take maximum points on the first round gives us a great base on which to build our championship campaign. I have been joined by my old co-driver John Spiller and it was a winning start to our new partnership."

"It was a terrible start for us in Qatar," said Bakhashab. "We were fastest through the first stage and then we had a clutch problem, which put us out of the rally in stage three. It was bad luck, but this time I will be pushing hard to take maximum championship points. I am confident."

Qassimi is also upbeat: "I used the rally in Qatar to get used to the Ford. Now it's a matter of pushing harder and learning my limits and the limits of the car." Behind the leading quartet, seasoned campaigner Michel Saleh should be the best of the rest with his Group A Toyota Celica GT4, partnered by the Jordanian Malek Hariri.

The Group N category for near-standard production cars has attracted the cream of the region's up and coming crop of rally drivers. Qatar's Mubarak Al-Hajri was the pacesetter in Qatar, before transmission problems intervened, and he will be hard-pressed by a fleet of Mitsubishi Lancers in the hands of Abdullah Al-Kuwari, Khalid Al-Qassimi, Melenaos Melissas, Ahmed Al-Sabban, Mohammed Al-Sarraf, Misfir Al-Marri, Ebrahim Busmait, Abdulrahman Ghuloom and Issa Al-Dossery. Kuwaiti driver Meshal Al-Najadi and local hot shot Hassan Al-Sadadi break the Mitsubishi trend with a pair of Subaru Imprezas.

UAE-based Ron Oakeley leads the FIA Super 1600 section after the opening round and he faces the British pairing of Simon Nutter and Howard Paterson, Cypriot Nearchos Nearchou and Kuwaiti Mohammed Al-Awadhi in the two-wheel drive category.

The event also features a couple of firsts for the FIA Middle East rally championship, with a Bahrain all-girl rally team making their first ever appearance in the championship. Yasmin Alhilli and Hanan Mohammed Ali will drive a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo3 for the first time.

Toyota Rally Team Saudi Arabia have been working tirelessly behind the scenes in recent months to launch the motorsport careers of a trio of young hopefuls, keen to follow in the footsteps of Abdullah Bakhashab and the 1992 regional champion Mamdouh Khayat. Three Toyota RAV-4s will run in a seperate section of the rally behind the international, with Majid Al-Ghamdi, Amr Shas Hassanain and Sultan Hamdi experiencing their first international competition behind the wheel.

'We have one new stage this year and have made many improvements to some of the others," admitted Sheikh Tariq bin Mohammed Al-Khalifa, chairman of the Bahrain Motor Federation. "The club is delighted with the response from international drivers and are looking forward to putting on a first class rally. We were voted the best round of last year's championship and will be keen to win the award again in 2002."

<pre> Top 10 starters: 1. Mohammed bin Sulayem (UAE)/John Spiller (GB) Ford Focus WRC 2. Abdullah Bakhashab (KSA)/Bobby Willis (GB) Toyota Corolla WRC 3. Hamed Al-Sowaidi (QA)/Michael Morrissey (IRL) Subaru Impreza WRC 4. Abdullah Al-Qassimi (UAE)/Fred Gocentas (LIT) Ford Focus WRC 5. Michel Saleh (UAE)/Malek Hariri (HKJ) Toyota Celica GT4 6. Ebrahim Busmait (BAH)/Sadiq Ashkanani (KWT) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo5 7. Mubarak Al-Hajri (UAE)/Allan Harryman (IRL) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo7 8. Hassan Al-Sadadi (BAH)/Hamoud Al-Jabry (OM) Subaru Impreza 9. Abdullah Al-Kuwari (QA)/Nasser Al-Kuwari (QA) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo7 10. Khalid Al-Qassimi (UAE)/Tariq Al-Warshaw (UAE) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo6

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About this article
Series Other rally
Drivers Bobby Willis , Fred Gocentas , Khalid Al-Qassimi , Michel Saleh
Teams M-Sport