With the FIA Middle East title and a great deal of pride at stake, the 32nd Dubai International Rally is poised to give the regional series a pulsating grand finale over UAE National Day weekend (December 2-4).
Taking place under the patronage of H.H. Sheikh Majid bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Chairman of the Dubai Arts and Culture Authority, the eighth and final round of the Middle East Championship has attracted 27 drivers from 12 Middle East and overseas countries.
They will be flagged away by Sheikh Majid from the Ceremonial Start tomorrow on Emaar Boulevard beside The Palace in the Old Town Island, Dubai at 7.30pm.
As the seeded competitors will leave the start in reverse order, the honour of being first away goes to the only lady driver in the rally, Jordan’s Ahed Eid, who will be partnered by Feras Allowh in a Group N Mitsubishi Evo 9.
Leaving the start ramp just under 30 minutes later, top-seeded Qatari Nasser Saleh Al Attiyah, accompanied by Italian co-driver Giovanni Bernacchini in a Super 2000 Ford Fiesta, knows his chances of retaining the FIA Middle East title are largely out of his hands.
Fellow Qatari Misfer Al Marri will become the new Middle East champion in Dubai on Saturday evening if he can finish the event in the top six.
That is not necessarily as simple as it sounds, and Al Marri will have to guard against complacency and loss of concentration which could shatter his hopes of becoming Qatar’s fourth FIA Middle East champion since the series started in 1984.
For Khalid Al Qassimi, winner of the Dubai Rally in 2005 and 2006 and now a regular in the World Rally Championship, nothing could be sweeter than a third victory in his home event over UAE National Day weekend and the No.2 seeded driver plans a “maximum attack”.
Partnered by Irish co-driver Michael Orr in a Ford Fiesta and with victories behind him this season in Kuwait and Lebanon, he is joined in the rally line-up by his brother, Sheikh Abdullah Al Qassimi, who leads him by a single point and currently holds fourth place in the standings.
Sheikh Abdullah is accompanied by British navigator Steve Lancaster in a Mitsubishi Evolution 9, and both he and his brother could climb above Qatar’s Khalid Al-Suwaidi to snatch third place in the championship.
While everything points to a dramatic battle for victory between Al Attiyah and Sheikh Khalid, the UAE’s Rashid Al Ketbi in a Skoda Fabia Evolution 2 could be a big threat, particularly if he reproduces the form which saw him dominate the 2nd leg of this event last year.
Qatar has four other challengers in the starting line-up - Abdulaziz Kuwari, Abdullha Alrabban, Sheikh Hamad Al Thani, and Jabir Al Marri.
Essam Al Nejadi, lying joint seventh in the championship, heads a seven-car entry from Kuwait.
His fellow countrymen Meshari Al Sabti, Mufeed Mubarak, Mshari Al Thefiri, Mohammad Al Thefiri, Eid Falah and Fahad Ashknani also tackle the event in Mitsubishi Evos.
Also carrying the Jordanian flag in Dubai will be Mazen Tantash and Carlos Del Barrio in a Subaru Impreza.
Saudi Arabia is represented by Ahmed Al Sabban and co-driver Adel Huseen in a Subaru Impreza, while Turkey’s Orcun Polat and Ufuk Uluocak in a Mitsubishi Evo 9 add to the international flavour of the event.
Two British drivers with four Middle East titles between them are also in the line up. UAE-based Ron Oakeley, a former regional Group N champion and Super 1600 winner, enters a Subaru Imprezza, as does close friend, Simon Nutter, twice a winner of the Formula Two crown.
A third British driver, David Scialom, also contests the event in a Subaru.
The competitive rally action unfolds on Friday and Saturday, with six stages of approximately 22 kms being run twice each over the two days to produce a route of 280 kms.
For those keen to follow the action, the special stages on Friday’s Leg 1 are found in the Malaiha and Shawka area and can be easily located from the Sharjah-Kalba Road. The special stages on Saturday’s Leg 2 are in the Al Dhaid area and can be easily located from the Sharjah-Kalba Road or the Al Dhaid Road.
The rally finishes at the Old Town Island, Dubai at 4.30pm on Saturday, December 4. Enthusiasts can follow the event on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/DubaiInternationalRally
FIA Middle East Rally Championship drivers’ standings after seven of eight rounds:
1. Misfer Al-Marri (QAT) 44pts
2. Nasser Al-Attiyah (QAT) 36pts
3. Khaled Al-Suwaidi (QAT) 22pts
4. Sheikh Abdulla Al-Qassimi (UAE) 21pts
5. Sheikh Khalid Al-Qassimi (UAE) 20pts
Yazeed Al-Rajhi (SA) 20pts
7. Sheikh Hamad Al-Thani (QAT) 14pts
Abdulaziz Al Kuwari (QAT) 14pts
Essam Al-Nejadi (KWT) 14pts
10. Mohammed Al Marri (QAT) 10pts