FIA MIDDLE EAST CHAMPIONSHIP BATTLE MOVES TO CYPRUS

Cyprus Nick Thomas takes overnight lead

Current MERC leader Al-Attiyah struggles with engine problems

The battle for the 2008 FIA Middle East Championship (MERC) crown moved to Cyprus today with the 2008 Cyprus Rally - and 20-year-old Cypriot driver Nicos Thomas leads the field overnight at the end of Leg 1.

Round 2 of this year's MERC, the weekend's action got underway at 0830 this morning from the service park on Limassol's seafront promenade; 49 crews started the event, and - while all attention was expected to be focussed on the current MERC leader, 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 - it is Cypriot Nicos Thomas and co-driver SG 'Chips' who hold a 12.9-second overnight lead in their Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IX.

The Cypriot drivers have enjoyed an extremely successful day. Constantinos Tingirides and Angelos Loizides set the pace early on, storming to an impressive lead over the morning's first two special stages.

Special Stage (SS) 1 (Lagoudera - Kapouras) saw an outstanding drive from current Cyprus Championship leader Tingirides in his Subaru Impreza N12, 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. Engine 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, both Al-Attiyah and Farrah admitted they were losing time heavily due to mechanical problems. Al-Attiyah was suffering loss of power due to an internal engine problem, while Farrah's loss of 1st and 2nd gear 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.

The third of the day's stages (Orkontas - Galata) saw Tingirides drop dramatically down the field to 12th fastest due to a puncture, while Stavros Antoniou made a spectacular comeback (after being hampered by 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, while Farrah finished the stage 16th and 15th overall. The Cyprus Rally is known to challenge the very best cars and drivers, and Leg 1 of this year's event was no different with seven retirements by the end of SS3.

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 seemed unconvinced that his mechanical 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 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.

Going into Day 2, the top five MERC drivers are Nick Thomas, Yazeed Al-Rajihi, Nick Georgiou, Nasser Al-Attiyah, and Amjad Farrah.

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 have met with a largely positive reception from the drivers, most of whom acknowledge the event remains tough, but most seemed to be enjoying themselves.

The event started from Limassol seafront this morning in warm sunshine. Rallies in Cyprus are renowned for their friendly nature and the mood was typically upbeat and positive.

The very latest technology is being employed for monitoring and timekeeping the event and the official website - http://www.cyprusrally.com.cy - is regularly updated during the event to keep everyone in touch with the action.

Crews will cover a further 456.04km tomorrow, including 122.75km of special stages. Parc Ferme out is at 07:00, with the first car entering the first stage of the day - SS5 (Foini - Koilinia) at 08:08, and SS6 (Anadiou - Anadiou Short 1) at 09:21, before returning to Limassol Service at 11:46.

Crews will then head out for the final two stages of the event - SS7 (Anadiou - Anadiou Short 2) at 13:29, and SS8 (Panagia - Arminou) at 14:30. Cars will return to the service park for final service at 16:20, with the finish soon after. The Finish Ceremony and prizegiving will take place in Limassol later in the afternoon.

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.

-credit: cyprusrally.com.cy