KHALID TAKES INITIATIVE AS UAE TRIO BATTLE FOR VICTORY IN DUBAI RALLY
Defending champion grabs first leg advantage as classic encounter builds towards championship climax
Dubai, UAE, 30th November, 2006: Defending champion Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi grabbed the initiative as the UAE's top three current drivers became engaged in a classic battle for victory in the Dubai International Rally today (Thursday).
After completing the first leg's eight special stages, the 2004 Middle East champion in a Subaru Imprezza led by 1 min 18 seconds from the Subaru of Sheikh Suhail bin Khalifa Al Maktoum, with his brother, Sheikh Abdullah Al Qassimi, only five seconds further adrift in a Mitsubishi Evolution.
With a gap of more than six minutes to Sheikh Suhail's City of Arabia team-mate, veteran UAE-based Lebanese driver Michel Saleh, in fourth place, the UAE trio were shaping up for a dramatic struggle for supremacy in the final round of the 2006 FIA Middle East Championship.
Completing the top six at the half way point were Austria's Andreas Wimmer in a Subaru and young Oman-based challenger Nicholai Georgiou, son of former Middle East rally star Tony Georgiou, in a Mitsubishi.
Sheikh Suhail is already assured of runners-up spot in the Middle East series behind champion Nasser Saleh Al Attiyah of Qatar, who is missing from the Dubai Rally line-up as he pursues a skeet shooting gold medal at the Asian Games in Doha.
The two Al Qassimi brothers started the day in contention for the final podium place in the championship along with Jordan's Amjad Farrah, but his hopes were soon ruined.
Farrah damaged his Mitsubishi's radiator after a hard, nose-down landing on the second stage, and the car later overheated and had to be towed to the service halt. Retiring for the day, Farrah was expected to start the second leg with the benefit of the "super rally" regulation which allows cars retiring on leg one to start the second leg with time penalties.
Other casualties on the day included Qatari Khalifa Al Attiyah whose Subaru was badly damaged by fire on the day's penultimate stage, although a civil defence fire engine moved quickly to extinguish the flames. Jordan's Ma'rouf Abu Samra also went out when his Subaru rolled on the same stage, but in both cases driver and co-driver were unhurt.
Even the leaders had some first leg concerns. "The stages are very bumpy," said Sheikh Khalid. "Half way through one stage it felt like I had a flat tyre, but the tyres are ok. Maybe it's mechanical, possibly the drive shaft. We're checking it."
Sheikh Suhail said: "The car is not handling well, and I've spun it three times today. Some of the stages have been very fast. I have some kind of mechanical problem, and it's probably the centre differential."
Meanwhile Sheikh Abdullah was staying in touch despite gearbox problems. "At one point we lost fourth gear so I was going from third to fifth," he said. "But I enjoyed the last two stages after the problems, and I managed to take 11 seconds off Suhail on the last stage."
Mohammed Ben Sulayem, President of the Automobile and Touring Club for the UAE, the rally organisers, had earlier flagged the 29 starters away from the Al Bustan Rotana Hotel assisted by Brigadier Abdulrahman Al Refei and Brigadier Mohammed Saeed Al Marri of Dubai Police, who are providing vital support to make this one of the safest rallies in the Middle East.
The 2006 Dubai International Rally is taking place under the patronage of H.H. Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, President of the Dubai Department of Civil Aviation, Chairman of Emirates Group and Chairman of Dubai Aerospace Enterprise.
The event enjoys the full backing of the Government of Dubai, Dubai Police, the Unified Ambulance Centre, Dubai Ports World and the Dubai Immigration authorities. It is sponsored by Nakheel, Dubai's premier property developer, Emarat, Hertz UAE, the Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing, Shamil, Mashreqbank, Damas and the Al Bustan Rotana Hotel, the official headquarters for the event.
Starting from the Al Bustan Rotana Hotel at 8am tomorrow (Friday) the second leg takes the cars through two loops of three special stages and a final burst of two more stages in the Hatta area, before finishing at the official hotel in Dubai at 3pm.