While we are still living in winter and waiting for spring, it is hot and dusty in other parts of the World 🙂
The Middle East tries its best to fit into the calendars of various sports. From football to F-1. We already have the Dakar there and it’s only a matter of time before this region returns to the WRC. In 2008, 2009, and 2011, the World Rally Championship already visited Jordan, where M. Hirvonen won once and S. Loeb twice in the gravel desert. Maybe next year, maybe a little later. Many fans are extremely unfavorable to such a future move, which is initiated on a purely financial basis. On the other hand, the roads in that region are truly unique and will add variety to the pinnacle of our beloved sport. Again, the number of rallies and regions in an ideal world deserves to be on the WRC calendar, but now we live in such times where the amount of currency usually speaks the decisive word. At that time, we can at least take some pluses from those decisions, which in one way or another still appear.
As far as this region is concerned, Qatar, which hosts the Qatar International Rally, stands out in its status. This competition takes advantage of the fact that there is a bit of a break in the WRC championship in the first half of February, and the ERC has not yet started. Therefore, recently, the organizers like to invite world-class crews to this rally, who not only have to understand the very specific specifics of the special stages of the Lusail region but also try to overtake the king of this rally – Nasser Al-Attiyah, who has won this rally a modest sixteen times. In 2021, Kris Meeke tried his luck, last year the same Briton and Mads Ostberg were here, and this year – two Norwegians Mads Ostberg with Andreas Mikkelsen, and the Finnish WRC2 champion Emil Lindholm. All of them competed here with the well-known Sports Racing Technologies (SRT) Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evo cars. This Latvian team has been working in this region for some years. If the Rally2 class car was usually driven only by Nasser, now some of his compatriots have also upgraded to Škoda Fabia, Ford Fiesta, or Volkswagen Polo Rally2 (R5) cars. The rest of the car park is mostly occupied by Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, Subaru Impreza cars, and Polaris or Can-Am buggies. Although there were only 23 participants, the diversity of nationalities was huge – 8 drivers of different nationalities and even 13 co-drivers were from different countries. In other words, a cosmopolitan event.
The roads, if you can call them that, are unique. Looking at the onboards, there is definitely a lot of similarity with the recently ended Dakar. Understanding where the road is and which barely visible track to hit in that wasteland is a challenge for many. Due to the specifics of the special stages, it is extremely important to exit the corners as quickly as possible, so the trajectories are often not limited to the road alone with the risk of catching stones or local vegetation. It also works the other way around – the locals know well which turns can be cut quite a bit. Plus, the terrain there is completely flat, so navigation is even more difficult. Therefore, this rally earned itself the most difficult event for navigators in the region. But it is not only navigation that is difficult there. The side of the road is full of rocks and the road has quite a few small bumps and dips that throw the light and fast rally cars in the air like balls. So, when you are there for the first time, it is damn hard to understand which dips or bumps are safe, and after which, if you drive too quickly, you may have to collect the remains of the car scattered all over the desert. Plus a pile of dust sometimes obscures the view of the same drivers who caused it. The surface wears the tires quite quickly, and the kilometers of that surface is a little over 200 in two days.
Normally, Nasser has no rivals in the Middle East. It was not a rare case when the distance from the nearest competitors was calculated not in seconds, but in minutes. This time it was different, as the three Scandinavians were ready to climb on the heels of the Qatari. It is true that the specifics of this rally are such that when participating here for the first time, there is almost no chance of catching Nasser in a close fight, but Mads Ostberg is here for the second time and it was immediately reflected in the results. Nasser had to clean the dusty road, plus he finished without a front bumper on Friday. Apart from that, the Qatari drove confidently and took the sixteenth victory in this competition. Mads Ostberg had a very real chance of overtaking the winner of the Dakar Rally, who, using his accumulated experience, led the competition several times. However, a flat tire on Friday probably meant that the Norwegian fell just 12 seconds short of the historic achievement. The top three were completed by Andreas Mikkelsen who also had a flat tire. Various dips and bumps cost him a lot of time because the Norwegian slowed down when driving the special stage for the first time when he didn’t know which places were really dangerous. Andreas was also not satisfied with the fact that the rivals were cutting the corners. The Norwegian was a little more than a minute and a half behind the winner of the rally. Finn Emil Lindholm took half a minute longer, for whom he said it was one of the greatest adventures. Indeed, neither in his native Finland nor in the WRC or ERC have there been any such terrain tests recently. After Nasser and the Scandinavian trio, the local Qataris and guests from Kuwait lined up. Only Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari in his Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evo was still a decent distance from the leader, while everyone else counted the distance in minutes. Nasser’s cousin Khalifa came sixth in a Ford Fiesta Rally2, followed by a fleet of Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution and Subaru Impreza.
It was the second round of the MERC (Middle East Rally Championship). The first was held in Oman, and the third will be held in Kuwait in March.
Photos – www.qmmf.com