MERC: Syrian Rally Ford Racing leg one report

Arab World's Top Driver Takes Ford Focus World Rally Car Into First Leg Lead In Syrian International Rally Mohammed Ben Sulayem and Ford, the dominant combination in the FIA Middle East Championship, took immediate control as the ...

Arab World's Top Driver Takes Ford Focus World Rally Car Into First Leg Lead In Syrian International Rally

Mohammed Ben Sulayem and Ford, the dominant combination in the FIA Middle East Championship, took immediate control as the Syrian International Rally made its debut in the FIA regional series today.

Chasing a fifth victory of the season in his Ford Focus World Rally Car, Ben Sulayem completed the first leg holding a 3mins 17 seconds lead over second-placed Qatari Mubarak Al Hajri, and was within reach of his 13th Middle East drivers' title.

The Arab world's top driver was also taking Ford a major step closer to a fifth Middle East manufacturers' triumph as Syria joined the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan, Lebanon and Cyprus on the championship circuit.

And while he may have wait two months more to clinch the manufacturers' title in Dubai, Ben Sulayem will be confirmed as champion Middle East driver once again in Damascus tomorrow night if he goes on to complete his 54th career win in the regional series.

"We lost a drive shaft on the longest stage of the day and had to go for around 30km with only two-wheel drive, but we didn't loose too much time," said Ben Sulayem at the end of the leg. "Apart from that, everything is fine, and we have a good lead."

Qatari Al Hajri, in a Group N Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution 6, was surprisingly holding second place ahead of Cypriot champion Andreas Tsouloftas in a Group A Mitsubishi. Lying fourth on the day, Sharjah's Sheikh Abdullah Al Qassimi was well on the way to clinching the Group N Middle East title for the second year in a row, while another Qatari, Hamad Al Sowaidi, completed the top five.

While Ben Sulayem and the Ford Focus WRC cruised into a commanding first leg lead there were a stream of casualties. Jordanian champion Faris Bustami, fellow-countrymen Omran Sakkijha, Hamza Dirani and Merza Hatak, Saudi Arabia's Ahmed Sabban, the Czech Republic's Pavel Hartl and Jaroslav Cernic, and German lady driver Edith Weiss, all went out with mechanical problems.

Partnered by the Ford Focus WRC by Jordanian co-driver Khaled Zakaria, Ben Sulayem had been the first of 23 competitors from 12 countries to be flagged away from the start at the Elba Cham Palace Hotel in Damascus by the Syrian Minister of Tourism, Qassim Muqdad.

The super special spectator stage scheduled to follow was cancelled for technical reasons. After an overnight halt in Palmyra, tomorrow's (Friday) second leg begins at 9am, and the event finishes in Damascus at 6pm after five more special stages. <pre>

Provisional leading positions after first leg:

1. M. Ben Sulayem / K.Zakaria (UAE/HKJ) Ford Focus WRC (A)              1hr 7mins 16secs
2. M.Al Hajri / A.Harryman (QT/IRL) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 6 (N)         1:10:33
3. A.Tsouloftas / A/Achilos (CY/CY) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 6(A)          1:11:06
4. A.Al Qassimi / T.Al Warshaw (UAE/UAE) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 6 (N)    1:11:17
5. H.Al Sowaidi / M.Morrissey (QT/IRL) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 6(N)       1:13:36

-Ford Racing

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Series Other rally