Cyprus Crown for Champion elect Al-Attiyah
Nasser Al-Attiyah and co-driver Steve Lancaster are just one rally away from officially claiming the 2003 FIA Middle East Rally Championship, after a stunning victory on the recent Troodos Rally, based in the mountains of Cyprus.
The Qatari ace nearly didn't get to contest the penultimate round of the series at all. Whilst shaking down his 2002 specification Subaru Impreza WRC on the Tuesday before the event, the Japanese machine dramatically caught fire on a test stage and the entire car was lost to the ensuing blaze. Fortunately, neither member of the crew were injured, and the team acted quickly to fly in a replacement car at the very last minute for the event.
The Qatar National Bank backed machine duly made the start of the rally on time, and Al-Attiyah showed no signs of trauma from the fiery incident as he immediately rocketed into the lead of the rally. The two day event used the twisty and hilly stages unique to the Troodos range of mountains, and posed a stern test for the Qatar team, who are promoting the 2006 Asian Games being held in Doha as part of their rally programme this year.
The replacement car was performing superbly for Nasser as he continued to build a strong lead over local favourite Andreas Tsouloftas in his Mitsubishi Lancer. The Olympic standard skeet shooter had used the recent Cedar Rally in Lebanon as a test before Troodos, and took a comfortable rally win in another Autotek Motorsport run car.
Drama was about to strike again for the championship leaders as they sped through one of the mountain passes. The Qatari driver momentarily had a mechanical problem as he turned into one corner, and the Subaru slipped off the side of the road as a result. Incredibly, Nasser was able to extricate the car from a near impossible position on the hillside, and the Pirelli shod Subaru regained the road some one and a half minutes later. Both Nasser and Steve breathed a huge sigh of relief at the end of the stage - they were just inches away from retirement.
Adjusting the settings on the car helped the Doha man to cope with the problem, and a trouble free run to the end of the event netted a six minute plus victory after another commanding display.
Al-Attiyah was delighted with the victory for himself, Lancaster and the Qatar Rally Team:
"When I sat in the rally car on the test stage and noticed the flames, I could not believe what was happening. The car had disappeared in flames within seconds - it was so frightening. However, I must thank the Qatar Motor Federation, Qatar National Bank and Autotek Motorsport for resolving the situation so quickly and so professionally. They really did keep us in the rally - before it had even started!
The rally itself went very well. I'd had some good practice on the Oman and Cedar Rallies before the event, so I felt very comfortable with the stages and the new car worked extremely well in the conditions. Going off the road was also a major scare, but fortunately the new breed of World Rally Cars are very strong and its amazing what trouble they can get out of! We only need to start the Dubai International Rally to be assured of the title, so I cannot wait to contest the rally and hopefully end the season on a high."
<pre> Troodos Rally (positions after final stage): 1. Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah (QA)/Steve Lancaster (GB) Subaru Impreza WRC 3h 40m 46.5s 2. Andreas Tsouloftas (CY)/Savvas Laos (CY) Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution 6 3h 47m 18.2s 3. Rami Shiohatovitch (CY)/Michael Michalakis Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution 6 3h 58m 46.1s
Overall FIA Middle East Rally Championship drivers' positions after round 5 of 6: 1. Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah (QA) 36 2. Andreas Tsouloftas (CY) 26 3. Sheikh Abdullah Al-Qassimi (UAE) 22 4. Roger Feghali (RL) 10 5. Abdo Feghali (RL) 8