MERC: Dubai Rally preview

Final round of regional championship will decide manufacturers' title race The longest campaign in the 18-year history of the FIA Middle East Championship reaches its conclusion over the next two days, when the Dubai International Rally...

Final round of regional championship will decide manufacturers' title race

The longest campaign in the 18-year history of the FIA Middle East Championship reaches its conclusion over the next two days, when the Dubai International Rally settles the last remaining major issue in the record eight-round regional series.

the final championship event of the season gets under way at the Al Bustan Rotana Hotel at 10.30am tomorrow (Wednesday), with 33 drivers from 12 nations setting off on a 575-km route containing 13 special stages.

Top seed Mohammed Ben Sulayem sets off first in his Ford Focus World Rally Car looking to secure the Middle East manufacturers' title for Ford, to add to his 13th regional drivers' crown.

Mohammed ben Sulayem, within reach of another double Ford title triumph in the FIA Middle East Rally Championship, is challenging the rest of the region's top drivers to test his stamina and resilience next season.

Now approaching 20 years in rallying, Ben Sulayem finds himself in a familiar position -- with the Middle East drivers' title already his for a 13th time, and another manufacturers' crown for Ford surely about to follow in the Dubai International Rally, starting tomorrow morning.

And while his priority over the next two days is to clinch the second leg of the title double in his Ford Focus World Rally Car (WRC), the Arab world's top driver is already looking ahead to the next season.

The reality is that, unless Oman's Hamed Wahaibi and Saudi Arabia's Abdullah Bakhashab return from the World Rally Championship circuit, or a couple of World Rally Cars arrive in the Middle East from other directions, Ben Sulayem may not be seriously challenged.

"I don't want to get involved in speculation about what Hamed or Abdullah might do over the next year or two, " said Ben Sulayem, top-seeded in Dubai in his Ford Focus WRC.

"And I don't want to discuss rumours that one or two other drivers are going to be buying World Rally Cars. But I would love to face a new challenge next year. At the moment, I have no intention of giving up the Middle East Championship to anyone who is not prepared to fight for it throughout the season."

Added Ben Sulayem: "I know there are those who think that, because I've been in this sport so long, I'm bound to loose my edge soon, or loose interest. But I don't see that happening for some time yet. Somebody's going to have to work hard to beat me."

On the eve of the 2001 Dubai International Rally, Ben Sulayem lined up at today's Ford Middle East Rally Championship Team news conference at the Al Bustan Rotana Hotel with Middle East champion co-driver Khaled Zakaria.

Jim Benintende, managing director of Ford Middle East and North Africa (MENA), said: "As far as Ford is concerned, the 2001 FIA Middle East Championship has already been hugely rewarding, adding another successful chapter to the story of Ford's partnership with Mohammed Ben Sulayem.

"But it's not over yet. After clinching the Middle East drivers' title for the 13th time in Syria -- with his fifth win of the season in the Ford Focus WRC -- Mohammed can, over the next two days, confirm Ford as manufacturers' champions for a fifth time. That's important to Ford -- particularly in a year which marks the 100th anniversary of Ford's debut in motorsports."

Added Benintende: "Over the past 100 years, Ford has enjoyed unmatched success in all areas of motorsports. Hard work and commitment, ingenuity and dedication, are the qualities that have combined to make up Ford's winning formula.

"It's a formula that has been applied in equal measure down the years to Ford rally programmes, and to the development of Ford vehicles. While we can't all be rally drivers like Mohammed Ben Sulayem, we can all benefit from the expertise of great drivers like him which goes into the development of rally cars, and leads ultimately to better, safer, road cars."

Said Benintende: "We're confident of a number of things at Ford. One is that the Focus will continue to enjoy success at all levels. Another is that Mohammed ben Sulayem will continue to extend a winning record which marks him as the most successful driver in the history of FIA championship rallying."

The international line-up also features Sharjah's Sheikh Abdullah Al Qassimi, already confirmed as Middle East Group N champion for the second year in a row, as well as Cypriot Nearchos Nearchou, the Super 1600 title winner in the two-wheel-drive category.

"We do face a number of limitations in our efforts to give a new look to the route each year, but we're hoping that the new stages introduced this time will add some extra interest," said event director, Derek Ledger.

The familiar Creek stage on both days of the rally is an obvious attraction for spectators. Other first leg stages in the Margham area, and the second leg stages on Thursday in Jebel Ali, are also easy to locate, beside the main highways. Rally enthusiasts can find special stage locations, and more details, by picking up copies of the official rally programme from the Rally Office at the Al Bustan Rotana Hotel, or by visiting the event's website at http://www.atcuae.com/dxbrally

The starting line-up will feature 11 UAE, drivers, four from Jordan, three each from Great Britain, and Qatar, two apiece from Bahrain, Lebanon, Syria and Cyprus, and one each from Australia, Saudi Arabia, the Czech Republic and Germany.

Sulayem is hot favourite to win his home event for a 14th time, and although fourth place could be enough to give Ford the manufacturers' title, the Middle East champion wants a sixth victory of the season. Waiting to pounce on any misfortune will be Lebanon's Michel Saleh, UAE-based Cypriot Nicholas Mandrides, and Al Qassimi, whose decision to contest the event in a Group A Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution 5 means there must be a new Group N winner in Dubai this time.

Qatar's Hamad Al Sowaidi and Mubarak Al Hajri, Australia's former Middle East Group N champion, Ron Cremen, and Saudi Arabia's Ahmed Al Sabban, are among the main challengers, while Jordan's Nancy Al Majali and Germany's Edith Weiss will contest the ladies' title. The second leg starts at 8.30am on Thursday, and the first car reaches the finish back at the Al Bustan Rotana Hotel at 4.30pm.

-rally-net-

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