Cypriot champion eyes Sulayem's Middle East crown

Cypriot champion, Andreas Tsouloftas, is hoping to Tsouloftas is close to completing negotiations with a World Rally Championship team HYUNDAI and a manufacturer's UAE dealer to acquire a World Rally Car, which could help him challenge Mohammed Ben Sulayem's dominance of the FIA Middle East series.

While his target is next year's Middle East title, Tsouloftas could finalise a deal in time to give the new car its regional debut in Dubai on November 14-15 at the climax to this year's eight-round championship.

"Everything should be resolved in the next few days. There's a chance I could have the car in time for Dubai, and that would be a great place to test it for next year," said Tsouloftas, whose Group A Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution cannot compete with Ben Sulayem's Ford Focus WRC.

"I've already tested it in the UK in the summer, and it was fantastic. There's a huge difference in performance between the WRC and my Group A car."

Held under the patronage of H.H.Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, President of Dubai Civil Aviation Department and chairman of Emirates, the 2001 Dubai International Rally has been brought forward by 24 hours to avoid the possible start of the Holy Month of Ramadan on November 16.

Officially sponsored by Dubai's newly re-named Ports, Customs & Free Zone Corporation, the rally starts and finishes at the Al Bustan Rotana Hotel, the official hotel and rally headquarters. It is co-sponsored by Seven Seas Computers, the official IT suppliers, and GTS, official suppliers of towing services.

On his last visit to the UAE back in January, Tsouloftas finished runner-up to Ben Sulayem in Abu Dhabi at the start of this year's FIA Middle East Championship.

Placed third in Qatar and fifth in Cyprus this year, he was the strong favourite for victory in the recent Troodos Rally on home soil, but a first-day crash put him out of the penultimate round of the Middle East series.

The multiple Cypriot champion had mixed fortunes on his two other previous visits to the UAE. He rounded off the 1999 season with an impressive third place finish on his first attempt at the Dubai International Rally, in conditions which, for him, were relatively unknown.

He looked like going at least one better when he returned to the UAE at the start of last year for the opening round of the championship in Abu Dhabi, but suspension failure put him out of the event on the second leg when chasing victory.

The 2001 Dubai International Rally starts from the Al Bustan Rotana Hotel at 10.30am on Wednesday, November 14, with the first of six special stages taking place alongside Dubai Creek, offering excellent viewing for spectators.

The remaining stages on the day -- all new -- will be run in the Marmon and Margham areas, with the cars returning to the Al Bustan Rotana Hotel for a night halt. Getting under way at 8.30am the following day, the second leg also begins with a Dubai Creek stage ahead of three more new stages, each to be run twice, in the Jebel Ali area. After 260-km of competitive stages, the first car reaches the finish at the Al Bustan Rotana Hotel at 4.30pm.

- duby miller