MERC: Ben Sulayem sees another rival "concede" title chase to Ford

Arab World's Top Driver Set to Take Big Step Towards New Middle East Double in Ford Focus WRC as Cypriot Star Stays at Home The route of the new-look Jordan International Rally has survived recent rain storms sweeping the deserts of the...

Arab World's Top Driver Set to Take Big Step Towards New Middle East Double in Ford Focus WRC as Cypriot Star Stays at Home

The route of the new-look Jordan International Rally has survived recent rain storms sweeping the deserts of the Hashemite Kingdom, but another obstacle has been removed from Mohammed Ben Sulayem's path towards a fourth win of the season in his Ford Focus World Rally Car next weekend.

Cypriot champion Andreas Tsouloftas had been hoping to mount a serious challenge to Ben Sulayem's dominance of the FIA Middle East series this season, but he now appears to have dropped out of contention.

While the Arab world's top driver began his build-up in Amman to the fourth round of this year's Middle East campaign starting on Thursday, Tsouloftas has remained in Cyprus to prepare for the island's World Championship event next month.

This effectively means he is conceding the Middle East drivers' and manufacturers' championships to Ben Sulayem and Ford, who could make a decisive move towards clinching another double success in the three-day Jordan International Rally.

"I'm sorry Andreas isn't here, because he has done well in Jordan in the past and could have given me a good fight," said Ben Sulayem.

"I fully understand why he would want to concentrate on his country's own World Championship rally, and I hope we'll be seeing a lot more of him in the future, because the Middle East series needs drivers of his ability."

In the absence of Tsouloftas, the biggest challenge to Ben Sulayem's bid for an 11th Jordan Rally victory could come from another former winner of the event, Lebanon's Michel Saleh, who today announced that he has signed a two-year sponsorship agreement which establishes the Damas UAE Rally Team.

Driving his ageing Toyota Celica GT-4 in Jordan, Saleh hopes the backing of the leading UAE jewellery chain, which boasts endorsement links with supermodel Claudia Schiffer, can add more than a touch of glamour to his rally programme.

The UAE's Sheikh Abdullah Al Qassimi has won the backing of Sharjah Airport International Free Zone for his bid to capture a second successive Group N title in the FIA Middle East Rally Championship.

The signing of a major new sponsorship agreement with SAIF-Zone provides the Sharjah-based driver with a powerful boost ahead of this week's Jordan International Rally, fourth round of this year's Middle East series.

"We are pleased to confirm our sponsorship of Sheikh Abdullah's 2001 FIA Middle East Rally programme, beginning with the Jordan International Rally," said Taryam Matar Mohd Taryam, director general, SAIF-Zone.

"By forming an association with one of the Middle East's leading rally drivers, and by establishing our presence within a championship which attracts a great deal of media and public attention, we will be raising the profile of SAIF-Zone, and alerting many more investors about the wide range of business advantages we offer."

Sheikh Abdullah, who will be aiming to strengthen his grip on the Middle East Group N title in Jordan, said: "I'm naturally delighted to have won the support of SAIF-Zone Sharjah. My hope is that this will be the beginning of a very fruitful partnership, and my aim now is to produce results, both on and off the rally circuit, which will reward SAIF-Zone for the trust they have placed in me."

He added: "The arrival of a major new sponsor for my rally programme is wonderful news, and I'm excited that I will now have the chance, through international rallying, to promote a facility which is a major business asset for the emirate of Sharjah."

The SAIF-Zone livery now decorates the brand new Group N Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution 6 which has been built at Sheikh Abdullah's state-of-the-art Arabian Automotive Technologies car maintenance facility in Sharjah, ready for its competitive debut in the Jordan Rally, which gets under way in Amman on Thursday.

Sheikh Abdullah, a four-times UAE national Rally champion, is firmly on course for a third Middle East Group N Championship triumph in four years after scoring successive Group N victories in the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain this season.

The Jordan International Rally is "the mother of all Middle East rallies" says Qatari competitor Mubarak Al-hajiri "and the most renowned in the Middle East in terms of organization, the type of stages, and climatic conditions which are lacking in other rounds of the Middle East Championship" Al Hajiri added.

The Qatari driver said long stages make the Jordan rally more interesting than other rounds in the Middle East Championship. He stressed that "drivers who use the capabilities of their cars wisely will achieve good results".

Alhajiri said that the nature of this region is "similar to a Safari" and having the long stages prevents the Rally from turning into an Autocross or Rally Sprint. He pointed out, however, that long special stages require excellent physical fitness.

A maintenance crew form Ireland accompanies the Qatari competitor. His Group N Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution 6 was equipped by Ralliart of Australia. Al-Hajiri is competing with co-driver Alan Harryman of the U.K. Harryman started taking notes for his legendary father Terry Harryman when he was seven years old.

"This rally should become one of the rounds in the World Rally Championship", Al-Hajiri said.

-duby miller

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About this article
Series Other rally
Drivers Andreas Tsouloftas , Alan Harryman , Michel Saleh