The Middle-East Rally Championship
The DUBAI Intl. Rally - 1st leg

Ben Sulayem Takes Ford Towards New Title Triumph In Dubai

Arab World's No.1 Driver Steers Ford Focus World Rally Car Into ommanding First-Leg Lead In Dubai International Rally

Mohammed Ben Sulayem powered his Ford Focus World Rally Car ever closer to another FIA Middle East Championship triumph today as he grabbed a clear lead in the Dubai International Rally.

Ben Sulayem, already Middle East drivers' champion for a 13th time, took Ford within reach of a fifth manufacturers' championship as he opened up a 3 minute 1 second lead over Qatar's Hamad Al Sowaidi on the first leg of the last of eight rounds in this year's regional series.

Aiming to win his home event for the 14th time, the Arab world's top driver, in fact, needs only a top-four finish in Dubai to wrap up the manufacturers' crown in a season marking the 100th anniversary of Ford's debut in motor sport.

But his determination to finish the longest Middle East Championship series on record with victory quickly became clear as he powered the Ford Focus WRC 1 minute 12 seconds ahead of Michel Saleh's Toyota after just two of the day's six special stages.

While a string of mechanical problems and engine failures removed half of the 26 starters, Ben Sulayem then extended his lead by another 43 seconds over the next two stages, despite two punctures.

The final two stages of the day saw the Ford Focus WRC widen the gap again, as Al Sowaidi climbed above Saleh into second place.

As the cars reached the night halt at the Al Bustan Rotana Hotel, Qatar's Mubarak Al Hajri, Cypriot Menelaos Melissas and Saudi Arabia's Ahmed Al Sabban completed the top six.

The first leg had begun dramatically for UAE-based Cypriot Nicholas Mandrides who was refused permission to start in seventh seeded position because co-driver Michael Lambrianos was not wearing his rally overalls. They eventually started 29 minutes late, with almost five minutes of time penalties dropping them immediately from contention, and their Mitsubishi Galant went out when it became stuck in soft sand on the day's penultimate stage.

Roger Thomas's Group A Peugeot had been the first car to retire, going out on the opening stage with mechanical problems, as did UAE-based Lebanese driver, Toufic Mitri, in a Mitsubishi.

A succession of other casualties followed. They included Middle East Group N champion, Sharjah's Sheikh Abdullah Al Qassimi, whose challenge this time in a Group A Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 5 was halted by a blown engine on stage four.

Jordan's Asem Aref and Britain's Howard Patterson retired with mechanical problems, Britain's Amrik Sehmbi went out with a blown head gasket, and Sheikh Abdullah's brother, Khalid Al Qassimi, retired with engine failure.

Australia's former Middle East Group N champion, Ron Cremen, retired on the same stage when his Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 6 blew its engine, Syrian driver Yazan Rigleh went out when his Mitsubishi broke its fuel pump, and Jordan's Faris Bustami retired with engine failure.

Starting with the familiar Creek special stage, Thursday's second leg continues with six more stages in the Jebel Ali area, before finishing at the Al Bustan Rotana Hotel at 4.15pm. <pre> Provisional leading positions at end of 1st leg:

1.   M. Ben Sulayem / K. Zakaria (UAE/HKJ)      Ford Focus WRC (A)              59mins 29secs
2.   H. Al Sowaidi / M. Morissey (QT/IRL)       Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VI (N)    1min 2mins 30secs
3.   M.Saleh / A. Ghaziri (RL/RL)               Toyota Celica GT4 (A)           1:03:49
4.   M. Al Hajri / N. Ahmadi (QT/UAE)           Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VI (N)    1:04:36
5.   M. Melissas / P. Shialos (CY/CY)           Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VI (N)    1:05:44
6.   A. Al Sabban / J. Dony (SA/IRL)            Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VI (N)    1:08:11
7.   R. Oakley / J. Turner (UAE/UAE)            Subaru Impreza WRX (N)          1:20:21
8.   N. Nearchou / G.Paryros (CY/CY)            Proton Wira (A)                 1:27:36
9.   S. Nutter / TBA (GB/)                      Opel Corsica GSI (A)            1:33:29
10.  H. Al Saddadi / Y. Al Hilli (BAH/BAH)      Subaru Impressa WRX (N)         1:35:50

</pre> - duby miller