2023 Qatar International Rally /FIA Middle East Rally Championship, round 2
Saturday, February 18th, 2023
· Norwegian duo of Østberg and Mikkelsen round off podium places
· Kuwait’s Meshari Al-Thefiri romps to second successive MERC2 victory
Losail (Qatar): Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah managed to secure his 17th career victory in one of the most exciting finishes in the history of the Qatar International Rally on Saturday.
The Qatari was unable to shake off Mads Østberg’s unwanted advances throughout a pulsating two days of high-speed action in the windswept deserts of northern Qatar. As they had done in 2022, the pair traded blows throughout what became a thrilling spectacle in the shifting sand and enveloping dust on the stages.
A storming run through the final stage in his Autotek Volkswagen Polo GTI and a minor error by the Norwegian ensured that Al-Attiyah secured the win by 12.2 seconds and his Andorra-based co-driver Mathieu Baumel earned a sixth success in Qatar and a 31st in his entire MERC career. The pair won seven of the 13 special stages and now lead the FIA Middle East Rally Championship.
The delighted five-time Dakar Rally winner, who also confirmed his 83rd career MERC win, said: “I am quite happy to win. This was an amazing weekend. To win 17 times is not easy. I am really quite proud of this. It was a big fight with Mads Østberg this week. I had nothing to lose at the start of the last stage. Just we go flat out everywhere.”
Østberg had pushed the Qatari hard in 2022 and his challenge was even stronger on this occasion with Swedish co-driver Patrik Barth reading the notes. The duo led twice in an SRT Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evo and won four stages before falling just short on the final speed test. Østberg could have become the first Scandinavian driver to win the Qatar event since the late Björn Waldegård teamed up with Fred Gallagher to take victory in 1986.
Mads said: “It was a great fight, no doubt. We enjoyed the rally a lot. I am starting to wonder if Nasser was just keeping it all under control all the way and did everything when he had to. I think we were able to stress Nasser and that was the only thing we could do. He knows his way around the desert. We are lacking still a bit of experience. I wanted to push on the last stage. I knew that this is Nasser’s best stage in the whole of Qatar. I knew that from last year. I did one big mistake on the stage where I mixed up the crests and the road disappeared to the left but this was not nine seconds. It was less than that. I have huge respect for Nasser. He is a very good driver and he knows what he is doing here. I am also very happy to be able to fight with him. We have led the rally two times and it’s been a very good weekend. I have a few extra notes now and I know what I need to do. I hope to get another shot.”
The Norwegian pairing of Andreas Mikkelsen and Torstein Eriksen were competing in Qatar for the first time and were not able to consistently match the leading pair. The 2021 FIA WRC2 champion won the opening tarmac stage and one desert special on his way to the final step of the podium in a second SRT Škoda.
Mikkelsen said: “I think third place is the most we could have asked for, having never been here before. I have to say I was very happy with the performance. We expected everyone to follow a little bit more the road. What we heard from the new FIA regulations, but there was still a lot of cutting going on. We just need to adjust our driving but, when we are done with the recce, it’s too late. We have the notes following the road. Two stage wins and the one was basically where you could not cut and had to follow the road. That’s where we felt more at home.”
Finland’s Emil Lindholm co-driver Reeta Hämäläinen improved markedly as the event progressed and adapted to the high-speed nature of the stages to confirm fourth place, while the QMMF-backed Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari and Lorcan Moore overcame a first day misfire to round off the top five.
Qatari Nasser Khalifa Al-Atya teamed up with Italy’s Giovanni Bernacchini to finish sixth in his new Motortune Ford Fiesta R5.
Meshari Al-Thefiri and his Qatari co-driver Nasser Al-Kuwari completely dominated the MERC2 category and reached the finish in seventh overall with a winning MERC2 margin of 5min 12.5sec in their Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X. Al-Thefiri won all but one of the gravel stages in his category to extend his lead in the championship standings.
Fellow Kuwaiti Yousef Al-Dhafeeri won one stage in MERC2 alongside Lebanese co-driver Carlos Hanna and finished second in MERC2, ahead of Qatar’s Abdullah Al-Rabban and Emirati co-driver Hassan Ali Obaid. The local crew of Rashid Al-Mohannadi and Fares Allouh rounded off the top 10 and finished fourth in the category.
Saturday – as it happened
Additional time penalties were imposed on Khalid Al-Suwaidi and Rashid Al-Mohannadi before the restart on Saturday for route deviations. Al-Suwaidi slipped to seventh and out of contention for fifth place with 4min 30sec of penalties, while Al-Muhannadi maintained his position but was handed one minute.
Shaker Jweihan was also considered to have retired from leg one after being caught driving on a road section on the rim of a rear right wheel. He re-joined under Rally2, although Oman’s Abdullah Al-Rawahi and Zakariya Al-Aamri were permanent retirements after the opening stages.
Al-Attiyah had the task of opening the road through the blustery 15.28km of Waab Al-Mashrab and he set the target time of 8min 35.5sec. But Østberg was on a mission and a faster time trimmed Al-Attiyah’s lead to 6.6 seconds. Mikkelsen was in inspired form and the Norwegian carded his first quickest time on gravel in Qatar to consolidate third place.
Lindholm and Al-Kuwari held fourth and fifth, while Al-Suwaidi managed to pass Al-Atya and snatch sixth place. Jad Al-Anwar retired his Mitsubishi with mechanical problems and the Lebanese was joined on the retirement list by Jordan’s Sheikh Bader Al-Fayez, who also succumbed to technical issues.
The stages came thick and fast on the final morning and a short road section took Al-Attiyah to the start of a southerly sprint through Al-Waab (14.91km).
Østberg continued to apply the pressure on Al-Attiyah and took full advantage of running behind the Qatari and seeing his lines in the stage. The Norwegian beat the defending champion by 3.1 seconds and the fastest time enabled him to close to within 3.5 seconds of the lead. But Al-Qatari incurred a five-second penalty for a gate infringement on the stage and slipped 1.5 seconds behind the Norwegian.
Mikkelsen, Lindholm, Al-Kuwari and Al-Suwaidi consolidated their positions inside the top six and Al-Thefiri continued to dominate the MERC2 category. MERC2 title contender Shaker Jweihan stopped with gearbox problems in the stage and Ahmad Khaled was forced to call it a day after sustaining two punctures and damaging the rear suspension arm.
There was no time to take a breath and the loop concluded, after a remote refuelling stop, with a run through Umm Birka – the longest stage of the event at 24.45km.
A flying Al-Attiyah carded the target time of 10min 58.2sec with an average speed of 133.7km/h on the last stage of the loop before the return to Lusail for a regroup and service. It was sufficient to beat Østberg by 7.2 seconds and the determined Qatari somehow regained a 5.7-second advantage to take into the afternoon.
The Qatari said: “The first loop was really not easy. You cannot see anything (wind and blowing dust). We missed one barrier and we have been a little bit wide. We took a five-second penalty but we tried to push again. It is not easy with this wind. At least in the afternoon we can push and there is a line. It is a good pace. I try to not lose time. We will see in the afternoon…”
Østberg added: “I am disappointed to be honest. My tyre choice was not a good one and I couldn’t really find a good rhythm this morning. I know what I have to do this afternoon, so let’s see.”
Khalid Al-Suwaidi officially retired from the event at Lusail after Irish co-driver Niall Burns complained of a minor injury and was unable to continue. The Qatar’s demise lifted Al-Atya back to sixth of the remaining 14 cars running in the MERC event.
The re-run of a windswept Waab Al-Mashrab would be an early indication if afternoon tyre choices were working. Al-Attiyah beat his morning’s run by 7.4 seconds but Østberg was a staggering 8.9 seconds faster than his earlier run and trimmed the Qatari’s lead to just 2.7 seconds.
The pressure was intensifying at the head of the leader board, as Mikkelsen came home with the second fastest time, the Norwegian finishing exactly one second behind his compatriot.
The repeat blast through Al-Waab would set up a thrilling finale in the Umm Birka stage. Al-Attiyah stormed through to post a time of 6min 35.8sec, exactly 10 seconds quicker than his performance in the morning. It was a stunning drive by the Qatari but he only managed to beat Østberg by 0.4 seconds and the duo headed to the final stage separated by 3.1 seconds.
Al-Attiyah had beaten his rival comfortably through Umm Birka in the morning, when the Norwegian made a wrong tyre choice, and he somehow managed to do it again to seal a 17th victory in Qatar. The Qatari beat Østberg by 9.1 seconds to seal victory by 12.2 seconds.
Action in the 2023 FIA Middle East Rally Championship resumes in Jordan on May 18th-20th.
2023 Qatar International Rally – positions after SS13 (unofficial @ 15.45hrs):
- Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah (QAT)/Mathieu Baumel (AND) Volkswagen Polo GTI 1hr 44min 07.4sec
Mads Østberg (NOR)/Patrik Barth (SWE) Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evo 1hr 44min 19.6sec
Andreas Mikkelsen (NOR)/Torstein Eriksen (NOR) Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evo 1hr 45min 44.9sec
Emil Lindholm (FIN)/Reeta Hämäläinen (FIN) Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evo 1hr 46min 13.6sec
Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari (QAT)/Lorcan Moore (IRL) Škoda Fabia Rally2 Evo 1hr 49min 59.9sec
Nasser Khalifa Al-Atya (QAT)/Giovanni Bernacchini (ITA) Ford Fiesta R5 2hr 00min 22.8sec
Meshari Al-Thefiri (KWT)/Nasser Al-Kuwari (QAT) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X 2hr 06min 03.3sec
Yousef Al-Dhafeeri (KWT)/Carlos Hanna (LEB) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X 2hr 11min 15.8sec
Abdullah Al-Rabban (QAT)/Hassan Ali Obaid (ARE) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X 2hr 11min 24.9sec
Rashid Al-Muhannadi (QAT)/Fares Allouh (QAT) Subaru Impreza STI 2hr 17min 11.1sec
Khalid Al-Muhannadi (QAT)/Waleed Al-Fuaim (SAU) Polaris Pro XP (T4) 2hr 19min 48.2sec
Sadoon Al-Kuwari (QAT)/Stéphane Prévot (BEL) Volkswagen Polo GTI 2hr 23min 21.2sec
Ihab Al-Shorafa (JOR)/Yousef Juma (JOR) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X 2hr 33min 39.0sec
Shadi Shaban (JOR)/Samer Issa (JOR) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X 2hr 47min 26.0sec
21 starters: 14 finishers
- Sami Fleifel (JOR)/Ahmed Al-Khatab (JOR) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VIII 2hr 28min 58.4sec