MERC: Close title race pre Jordan Rally

Desert clash for championship contenders The Jordan International Rally, which starts in Amman on July 24th with support from Marlboro, is set to be one of the closest events on record, as the region's leading drivers attempt to claim ...

Desert clash for championship contenders

The Jordan International Rally, which starts in Amman on July 24th with support from Marlboro, is set to be one of the closest events on record, as the region's leading drivers attempt to claim the advantage in what is becoming the most exciting Middle East Rally Championship title race in many years.

Following the withdrawal of the most recognized participants in the Marlboro Rally of Lebanon such Marlboro Saudi Peugeot driver Bakhashab's withdrawal in the aftermath of an accident that caused his car to stray off the track in the second stage of the Marlboro Rally of Lebanon as well as Qatari Nasser Al Attiyah, the series is currently led by Sheikh Abdullah Al-Qassimi, last year's runner-up and a former Group N regional champion.

Al-Qassimi tackled the opening round of this year's series in Qatar in a Ford Focus WRC and finished second overall, collecting eight championship points into the bargain. He made the decision to switch to a Group N Mitsubishi prior to the recent event in Lebanon and was the main benefactor from the retirement of his main rivals and the exclusion of both the Lebanese drivers Doumit Bou Doumit and Phillipe Kazan for technical inrfringements.

Al-Qassimi and co-driver Gaby Khoury duly finished sixth overall, won the Group N category and collected three championship points. Abdullah is now the outright leader of the regional series and heads for the three-day, 20-special stage event across the Hashemite Kingdom with a slender one point lead over both Al-Attiyah and Lebanon's Roger Feghali, who have 10 points apiece.

"I decided to revert to Group N after the Qatar Rally and the decision was a good one," said Al-Qassimi. "In Lebanon I just stayed in contention and out of trouble. If you don't have major problems and you have a competitive pace then you always have a chance of doing well. I like the Jordan Rally and it will be interesting to see what happens. I intend to take part in all the rallies, so we will have to wait and see."

Al-Qassimi is also tied for the lead in the Group N category with the former British Super 1600 Champion Justin Dale. The British driver has yet to confirm his continued involvement in the regional series, after arranging to tackle several rounds of the FIA World Rally Championship this year.

While Bakhashab has endured two consecutive retirements and has yet to claim a single championship point, rival Al-Attiyah needs to put the disappointment of losing third overall on the sixth stage in Lebanon quickly behind him.

It was the Qatari's first taste of tarmac rallying with the ex-Makinen Subaru Impreza WRC, but the former olympic skeet shooter is looking forward to tackling the gruelling desert and mountaineous stages which make up the route of this year's Marlboro-supported rally in Jordan.

"I spent several years away from the sport representing Qatar in skeet shooting," admitted Nasser. "But I vowed to return and it was fantastic to win in Qatar earlier this year. Rallying on tarmac in Lebanon was very different and I was disappointed not to finish. When Abdullah retired it left the door open for me to take a big lead in the championship, but I threw it away. I prefer the desert and know that I need to finish in Jordan."

"We expect the World Rally Cars to lead the way on events of this nature," said Hassan Alaeddin, the chairman of the RACJ. "But the Group N category is very close and the cars are increasingly competitive. Abdullah Al-Qassimi has proved that by leading the championship after two rallies."

2003 FIA Middle East rally championship positions after round 2 of 6:-
1. Sheikh Abdullah Al-Qassimi (UAE) 11
2. Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah (QA) and Roger Feghali (RL) 10
4. Abdo Feghali (RL) 8
5. Justin Dale (GB) and Rodrigue Rahi (RL) 6
7. Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari (QA) and Marco (RL) 5,

2003 Group- N positions after round 2 of 6:-
1. Justin Dale (GB) and Sheikh Abdullah Al-Qassimi (UAE) 10
3. Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari (QA) and Elan (RL) 8
5. Craig Johnson (GB) and Sheikh Khaled Al-Qassimi (UAE) 6
7. Abdullah Al-Rabban (QA) and Toni Abdel Hak (RL) 5,

-duby miller

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About this article
Series Other rally
Drivers Roger Feghali , Justin Dale , Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari