MERC: Ben Sulyayem's former Saudi star pupil Bakhashab

Middle East Champion Takes Ford Focus WRC Into Another Tussle With Saudi Arabia's World Championship Contender Abdullah Bakhashab's return to Middle East action in next weekend's Rally of Lebanon has set the scene for another action-packed ...

Middle East Champion Takes Ford Focus WRC Into Another Tussle With Saudi Arabia's World Championship Contender

Abdullah Bakhashab's return to Middle East action in next weekend's Rally of Lebanon has set the scene for another action-packed encounter between the Saudi Toyota Corolla driver and Mohammed Ben Sulayem in his Ford Focus World Rally Car (WRC).

While Bakhashab's appearance in Lebanon cannot derail Ben Sulayem's latest title drive with Ford, the meeting of the 12-times Middle East champion and his former protégé could ignite the fifth round of this year's series, which starts on Friday.

The Arab world's top driver has been a major influence on Bakhashab's career, which currently sees him contesting the FIA Teams Cup on the World Championship circuit

And while Ben Sulayem makes Italian tarmac specialist Pierro Liatti the favourite in Lebanon, he is also expecting a major assault from Bakhashab, as he looks to extend his 100 per cent record this season in the Ford Focus WRC.

"Abdullah is a very good driver," said Ben Sulayem, who will be partnered for the last time by his co-driver for the last 14 years, Ronan Morgan. "He came to me as a student, and he became my biggest challenger in the Middle East since the great battles I had with Saeed Al Hajri in the 1980s.

"In the last nine or ten rallies that we competed against each other, I won most and he won one, but they were all very close, and that's how I think it will be this time."

Added Ben Sulayem: "He kept me on my toes, made me concentrate, and helped bring out the best in me. The championship misses him, and I'm pleased that he's coming back, even if it's only for the Lebanon event."

Bakhashab became Ben Sulayem's protégé after earning the chance of a rallying career in 1992 by finishing top of a rally driving school in Saudi. After winning successive regional Group N titles in 1993 and 1994, Bakhashab claimed the Middle East Championship outright the following year as Ben Sulayem competed overseas.

The Saudi driver then had to accept second best to Ben Sulayem and Ford when the UAE star returned to reclaim his Middle East crown, and Bakhashab admitted recently: "I got frustrated when he kept beating me. Some times luck was on his side, some times he was just better.

"I'll always be grateful to him for the help and support he gave me, and he knows that.

He was my hero, and the reason I became interested in rally driving in the first place."

Added Bakhashab: "Now I think I'm much better prepared to compete against Mohammed. I have a lot more experience than before, and I'll be driving a World Rally Car, so it will be good to see where we stand against each other.

"You can't take anything away from him. He's a very good driver. It's nonsense to say that he only wins just because he has the best car. He's a fighter. And he keeps his sponsors happy. That's a lesson others could learn from. There have been a lot of other drivers with ability in this part of the world, but they didn't give anything back to their sponsors. Where are they today?," the Saudi driver concluded.

-duby miller

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Series Other rally , WRC