CYPRIOT NICOS THOMAS TAKES VICTORY IN 2008 FIA MERC CYPRUS RALLY
The Cyprus Rally, round 2 of the 2008 FIA Middle East Championship (MERC), came to an exciting climax today, with victory for Cypriot Nicos Thomas and co-driver SG Chips in their Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX.
Fellow Cypriot Savvas Savva and co-driver Pambos Laos secured second place in their Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VIII, finishing the event 26.2 seconds behind Thomas.
Pre-event, attention was expected to be focussed on Qatar's Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah and his Ulster co-driver Chris Patterson in their Subaru Impreza WRX N14, and Jordan's Amjad Farrah and Tina Maria Monego - who started 2nd in their Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX.
This weekend's event attracted a host of famous faces from across the region, including Saudi Arabia's Yazeed Al-Rajihi, Qatar's Misfer Al-Mari, Souhail Al-Maktoum of the UAE, Lebanon's Michel Saleh and Nick Georgiou, Qatar's Khalifa Al-Attiyah, Salah Bin Eidan of Kuwait, and Nizar Al-Shanfari of Oman.
The international field was largely decimated over the weekend's action, however, with only three finishing in the top ten: Al-Attiyah in 3rd, Nick Georgiou 6th and Al-Mari 9th.
Thomas' victory makes him the second Cypriot driver to win the Cyprus Rally since 1991, after Charalambos Timotheou won here last year. At 20 years of age, not only is Thomas the youngest driver ever to win the Cyprus Rally, his win also makes him the youngest driver to ever win a Middle East Rally Championship event.
>From Day 1, the event belonged to 20-year-old Cypriot driver Nicos Thomas and co-driver SG Chips, who held a 12.9 second overnight lead in their Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX.
The weekend's action got underway at 0830 yesterday morning from the service park on Limassol's seafront promenade; 49 crews started the event. Cypriot drivers enjoyed considerable success from the outset and Constantinos Tingirides and Angelos Loizides set the pace early on in their Subaru Impreza N12, storming to an impressive lead over the morning's first two special stages.
SS1 (Lagoudera - Kapouras) saw an outstanding drive from current Cyprus Championship leader Tingirides, setting an impressive time of just 16m 08.6s, with the Mitsubishi Evolution VII of Paraskevas Paraskeva and Yiannos Evripidou 11.8 seconds behind. Stavros Antoniou and Nicos Thomas finished the stage 3rd and 4th fastest consecutively. Technical problems plagued Al-Attiyah and the best he could manage was 11th fastest, 41.2 seconds behind Tingirides. Farrah was back in 13th, 51.7 seconds off the leader. All 49 cars which started the rally completed SS1.
Speaking at lunchtime service on Leg 1, both Al-Attiyah and Farrah admitted they were losing time heavily due to mechanical problems. Al-Attiyah was suffering loss of power due to what was thought to be an internal engine problem, but which later turned out to be electrical. Farrah's loss of 1st and 2nd gears made scoring good times on the challenging Cyprus stages impossible.
Tingirides continued to lead the way in SS2 (Kourdali - Ag. Theodoros), setting fastest time through the stage, with Paraskeva 18.6 seconds behind overall. Savvas Savva came in 3rd fastest in his Evo VIII, with Nicos Thomas 4th. Saudi Arabia's Yazeed Al-Rajihi was 5th in his Subaru Impreza 2008, followed by Souhail Al-Maktoum of the UAE, also in a Subaru.
SS3 (Orkontas - Galata) saw Tingirides drop dramatically back to 12th fastest due to a puncture, while Stavros Antoniou made a spectacular comeback (after a puncture in SS2) to finish fastest on the stage. Pantelis Pambouka came in 2nd in his Subaru Impreza, 11.1 seconds behind Antoniou; Al-Rajihi and Savvas were 3rd and 4th fastest through the stage. Thomas came in 5th fastest, placing him 2nd overall, 23.8 seconds behind rally leader Savvas Savva. Nick Georgiou (Evo IX) was 6th fastest through SS3, followed by Andreas Tsouloftas in 7th. Al-Attiyah's problems continued, leaving him 14th fastest through the stage and 9th overall, whilst Farrah finished the stage 16th and 15th overall.
The teams returned to Limassol service after lunch, then headed out again to tackle the last stage of the day, SS4 (Anadiou - Anadiou). While Al-Attiyah was unconvinced that his technical woes were over, he vowed to press on and secure the best result possible. Tingirides, still smarting from losing time in SS3, left service planning to "go flat out in stage 4".
Tingirides kept to his word, bouncing back in the long and challenging final stage of the day to set the fastest time, with Nicos Thomas just 0.3 seconds behind through the stage. Stavros Antoniou managed 3rd fastest through SS4, and Al-Attiyah did all he could to be 4th fastest. Amjad Farrah, still struggling with transmission problems, could only manage 11th.
Ahead of Day 2, the top five MERC drivers were Nick Thomas, Yazeed Al-Rajihi, Nick Georgiou, Nasser Al-Attiyah, and Amjad Farrah. But things went from bad to worse for Farrah in evening service, when his gearbox change hit problems and he overran his service time, resulting in his exclusion. His team acknowledged that this wasn't good in terms of the championship, but hope that the next event will go better.
There was a positive atmosphere at the start on Sunday. Al-Attiyah in particular was upbeat, confident that the previous day's problem had turned out to be an electrical fault, which his mechanics had managed to resolve. Overnight leader Thomas was also quietly confident. Having rectified his power steering problems, he set out for a steady drive, hoping for a podium finish.
Al-Attitah's positive mood was quickly justified, as he set fastest time through the first stage of the day, SS5 (Foini - Koilinia), ahead of Tingirides and Al-Rajihi. Stavros Antoniou and Savvas Savva came through the stage 4th and 5th fastest respectively, while Nicos Thomas did enough to maintain his overall lead with a measured drive - 6th fastest through the stage.
Al-Attiyah was pushing hard all morning to make up for time lost yesterday. He flew through SS6 in 33m 22.5s, and Nicos Thomas responded - setting 2nd fastest time just 0.4 seconds behind, which was enough to maintain his overall lead into lunchtime service. Savvas Savva finished SS6 as 3rd fastest, with Stavros Antoniou 4th fastest and Pantelis Pamboukka 5th.
In lunchtime service, Al-Attiyah admitted that there was a lot of time to make up, "But let's see".
Thomas acknowledged that Al-Attiyah was fighting back, but he remained calm, saying that he was just going "to keep doing the same and hope to do well".
Al-Attiyah kept up his attack on SS7 (Anadiou - Anatiou Short 2), taking the stage just 0.1 seconds ahead of Thomas. Savvas Savva was 3rd fastest, with Pantelis Pamboukka and Leonidas Christofi in their Subaru Impreza STi N12 4th.
Thomas' spirited response to Al-Attiyah's challenge saw him maintain his overall lead going into the final stage of the event, SS8 (Panagia - Arminou). Al-Attiyah lost considerable time in the last stage and could only manage 9th fastest. Pamboukka showed a final burst of speed to take the final stage of the event, but another assured drive from Thomas saw him clinch victory when he went second fastest through the stage.
While Al-Attiyah would have liked a repeat of his many recent victories in Cyprus, he will no doubt be satisfied after his difficult first day to leave Cyprus with 8 points and his MERC lead intact.
Rallies in Cyprus are known for their friendly atmosphere and the 2008 event was no different, with warm temperatures and plenty of sunshine.
Revamped for 2008, the Cyprus Rally is more than ready for its return to the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) calendar next year. This weekend's event features a combination of new special stages, stages which were first introduced last year, and a selection of classic stages. It is noteworthy that an outstanding 80 percent of the stages are used just once through the course of the event.
The stages met with a largely positive reception from the drivers, most of whom acknowledge that the event remains tough, but most seemed to be enjoying themselves.
The Finish Ceremony and prizegiving took place Limassol's seafront promenade later in the afternoon.
The very latest technology was employed for monitoring and timekeeping the event and the official website - http://www.cyprusrally.com.cy - was regularly updated over the weekend to keep everyone in touch with the action.
The Cyprus Rally is organised by the Cyprus Automobile Association (CAA), with support from the Cyprus Tourism Organisation, and is sponsored by Cyta, Golden Telecom, Coca Cola Zero, Compusource and Travelscope.
Cyprus hosts two rounds of the FIA Middle East Rally Championship this year. The Troodos Rally, round 6 of the 2008 MERC and the penultimate event in this year's calendar, will be held in Cyprus on 7/9 November.