Qatar’s Nasser Al Attiyah refuses to relax his grip on the Dubai International Rally, although the UAE’s hopes of a home victory are still alive at the half way point in the final and deciding round of the 2012 FIA Middle East Championship.
Aiming for his sixth straight win in the event and an eighth Middle East title, Al Attiyah completed Friday’s first leg seemingly in control, leading by 1 minute 29.2 seconds from the UAE’s Sheikh Abdullah Al Qassimi.
Another Emirati, Rashid Al Ketbi, was just 12.4 seconds further away in third place as Ford Fiesta Regional Rally Cars monopolised the leading positions in the 34th edition of the Dubai International Rally, held under the patronage of Sheikh Majid bin Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Chairman of Dubai Culture and Arts Authority.
The Qatari trio of Khalid Al Suwaidi, Abdulaziz Al Kuwari and 2010 Middle East champion Misfer Al Marri completed the top six at the end of the leg.
On a day when persistent rain made visibility difficult at times for the drivers, Al Attiyah was dominant throughout, setting fastest times on each of the six special stages alongside Italian co-driver Giovanni Bernacchini.
With six more special stages remaining on Saturday's second leg, however, he knows he cannot afford to relax, and must avoid the kind of problems which ruined the victory hopes of one UAE challenger.
Sheikh Khalid Al Qasimi, winner of the event in 2005 and 2006, was forced to retire after his Ford Fiesta RRC suffered two punctures on stage three while lying third.
The only consolation for the Emirati and British co-driver Scott Martin is that they can take advantage of the super rally regulation which allows them to re-start on the second leg, but well down the field as a result of time penalties.
It was a relatively trouble-free day for Al Attiyah, who needs only a top-five finish in Dubai to retain his FIA Middle East crown. “The rain made it difficult to see the route at times but it didn’t really affect my driving and we did a good job,” he said.
Sheikh Abdullah, who has been trying to win his home event since 1983, said: “I almost rolled the car on the third stage when we went on two wheels for about 50 metres, but otherwise everything was ok.”
Both he and Al Ketbi will battle on throughout the second leg knowing the uncertainties of rallying can bring dramatic changes in fortunes, although Al Attiyah has the unmistakable look of a champion in Dubai, and the Middle East, once again.
The rally is staged with the full support of the Dubai Ruler’s Court, and is backed by Emarat, Dubai Police, the General Directorate of Residency and Foreigners Affairs - Dubai, the Dubai Corporation for Ambulance Services, and Dubai Civil Defence.
Another six special stages on Leg 2 will run in the Al Dhaid area and are easily located from the Sharjah-Kalba Road or the Al Dhaid Road. The survivors reach the finish on Emaar Boulevard, Old Town Dubai, at 4.30pm on Saturday.