Arab World's Top Driver Prepares To Mount Big Challenge in Ford Focus World Rally Car As Intriguing Battle Ignites Middle East Championship The Rally of Lebanon was living up to its promise to ignite the 2001 FIA Middle East Championship today,...
Arab World's Top Driver Prepares To Mount Big Challenge in Ford Focus World Rally Car As Intriguing Battle Ignites Middle East Championship
The Rally of Lebanon was living up to its promise to ignite the 2001 FIA Middle East Championship today, as home favourite Roger Feghali set the initial pace, and Mohammed Ben Sulayem shrugged off an early setback to keep his Ford Focus World Rally Car in the hunt for victory.
While stage records fell to the Subaru World Rally Cars of Italian pre-event favourite, Piero Liatti, and then Feghali, on the second leg's first two stages, Ben Sulayem was delayed by a loss of turbo boost pressure, a problem quickly resolved during the first service halt.
And with Feghali taking a 19-seconds lead from Liatti after five stages, and Lebanon's Jean-Pierre Nasrallah holding third place in another Subaru, Ben Sulayem climbed from sixth to fourth position in the Ford Focus WRC to suggest that the real battle was about to begin.
Going in the opposite direction was Saudi Arabia's Abdullah Bakhashab, who lost three minutes on stage five through mechanical problems in his Toyota Corolla WRC to drop from second place to sixth, leaving him with a mountain to climb.
Chasing his fifth career win in Lebanon, and protecting a 100 per cent record this year, Ben Sulayem knew before the start that he faced a mighty challenge from Liatti, one of the world's top tarmac drivers, from Bakhashab, and the top Lebanese pair.
Seeded first in his Ford Focus WRC, the Arab world's top driver had a clear disadvantage on Friday night's opening super special stage in the heart of Beirut, and on today's early stages.
"Nobody really wants to be first away, because you're just sweeping the road for the cars behind," said Ben Sulayem. "It's very slippery, and we've been sliding around quite a bit."
Early casualties included the Mitsubishi of Lebanon's Abdel Hak and the Skoda of the Czech Republic's Pavel Hartl which both crashed out of the event on the third stage, as well as the Renault Clio Williams of Lebanon's Elie Nehme Leb Renault which retired on the same stage with mechanical problems.
Three other Lebanese drivers, Mathieu Reboisson and Moussa Chebli in a pair of Renaults, and Nabil Abdelhak in a Peugeot, as well as Saudi's Ahmed Al Sabban, also went out. The succession of departures emphasised that it would be foolish to predict a winner, with another 17 stages remaining before tomorrow night's finish, and only 69 seconds separating the top four.
Competing for the last time with Ronan Morgan before the Irishman retires from co-driving after a 26-year career, Ben Sulayem has put Ford firmly on course for a fifth double manufacturers' and drivers' championship success this season with wins in the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Jordan.
And while Feghali, Liatti and Nasrallah were all trying to break his winning run in the Ford Focus WRC, Ben Sulayem was determined to conclude a remarkably successful 14-year partnership with Morgan by scoring his 54th win in the Middle East Championship, and their 42nd together.
Lying seventh overall, Lebanon's Doumit Bou Doumit led Group N in his Mitsubishi from French veteran Yves Loubet, with reigning Middle East Group N champion, the UAE's Sheikh Abdullah Al Qassimi, holding fourth place in the production class, and looking to strengthen his grip on this year's title race.
Qatar's Mubarak Al-Hajri and Australia's Ron Cremen held 14th and 17th places overall.
The rally finishes at the Automobile and Touring Club of Lebanon in Jounieh at 7.30pm local time tomorrow (Sunday) after a third and final leg featuring 11 special stages. <pre>
Provisional leading positions after five special stages:
1. R.Feghali / Z.Chehab (RL/RL) Subari Impreza WRC(A) 39:47:6 2. P.Liatti / C.Cassina (IT / IT) Subaru Impreza WRC(A) 40:06:6 3. J.P.Nasrallah / Y.Bassil (RL/RL) Subaru Impreza WRC(A) 40:20:3 4. M. Ben Sulayem / R.Morgan (UAE/IRL) Ford Focus WRC(A) 40:56:9 5. A.Feghali / M.Haddad (RL/RL) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 6(A) 42:18:0 6. A.Bakhashab /B.Willis (KSA/UK) Toyota Corolla WRC (A) 43:16:4 7. D.Bou Doumit / N.Njeim (RL/RL) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 5(N) 43:18:3 8. Y.Loubet / J.Renucci (F/F) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 6(N) 43:37:3 9. M.Saleh / A.Ghaziri (RL / RL) Toyota Celica GT04(A) 44:00:1 10. H.Massad / Z.Chaloub (RL/RL) VW Golf GTI Kit Car(A) 44:27:2