Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah may have eased his pace over the closing stages of the Jordan Rally, but the Qatari was still in inspired form and a whitewash of each of the 19 special stages was enough to give the Skoda Fabia R5 driver a staggering winning margin of 18min 18.4sec.
A 10th victory in the Hashemite Kingdom and a 63rd in his FIA Middle East Rally Championship (MERC) career was never really in doubt once eventual runner-up Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari left the road on Friday afternoon, before clawing his way back from fifth to second place in a second Skoda Fabia R5.
But the Qatari and French co-driver Matthieu Baumel rarely seemed to break sweat after a dominant weekend. “It was important that I came here with a focus to win the rally and claim the maximum 39 points for winning both legs and the event,” said Al-Attiyah, who now has a massive MERC series lead after three rounds.
“I was able to control the race from the very start and set my own pace. Whoever wants to compete outside in the World Championship needs to first beat Nasser Al-Attiyah in the Middle East!”
On an event held in conjunction with the celebrations of 100 years since the Great Arab Revolt, it was fitting that two Jordanian drivers should be involved in the fight in the desert to decide the winner of MERC 2. Khaled Juma held all the aces in the pack at the start of the day, but Husam Salem returned with a vengeance and a rebuilt car and began to eat into his rival’s advantage throughout the morning.
Salem was closing fast on Juma when the latter’s Mitsubishi reached a real low point at the Baptism Site and spluttered to a halt in the water splash, the 17 minutes lost wrecking the local national championship’s podium dream and handing Salem the lead.
But Husam lost five minutes in the penultimate stage before retiring and leaving the door open for Abdullah Al-Kuwari, the Qatari duly confirming a 1-2-3 podium finish for the gas-rich state. It was also the first All-Qatari podium outside Qatar in MERC history.
Khalid Al-Suwaidi overhauled Juma in the 17th stage to snatch fourth position after Salem’s late demise, while the Jordanian (Juma) managed to reach the finish in fifth after Kuwait’s Meshari Al-Thefiri withdrew three stages from the end with transmission issues.
Lebanon’s Rodolphe Asmar was sixth, Jordan’s Ihab Al-Shorafa finished seventh and Qatar’s Rashed Al-Nuami recovered from a second stage crash to collect points for eighth overall. Only eight of the original 15 cars reached the end.
“Motor sport has a rich tradition here in Jordan from the legacy of King Hussein. King Abdullah is also keen on motor sport and we work as a team to promote the sport,” said HRH Prince Feisal Al-Hussein, chairman of Jordan Motorsport.
“We are surrounded, here in Jordan, by war and political problems, but we want to see sport thrive in the region. We are keen for the WRC to return here and want to see what the promoter requires for this to progress. I am delighted with the work done this week by my team at Jordan Motorsport.”
Saturday – as it happened
Front end crash damage dictated that Khalifa Al-Attiyah was not able to rejoin the action under Rally2, but five of the other six retirements from leg one were permitted to start the final eight stages on Saturday. Turkey’s Vidat Diker suffered terminal mechanical problems.
Al-Attiyah led the field into battle in the opening Rawda stage with a massive lead of 11min 164sec. Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari restarts in fifth overall, 1min 36.8sec behind fourth place, while Khalid Al-Suwaidi was eighth at the start of the 10.64km opener.
Nasser clocked a time of 7min 50.4sec through Rawda and it was comfortably quicker than the time set by any of his rivals. Salem clawed 10.7 seconds back from Juma in the battle for second place and the win in MERC 2, but the Jordanian national champion headed to the 14.86km of Shuna with a comfortable outright lead. Asmar was an impressive fourth quickest, as Lina Hadadi retired with mechanical issues.
Al-Attiyah continued to cruise into the distance through Shuna and Karamah, as Salem chiselled into Juma’s MERC 2 advantage.
By the end of the Baptism special and the return to the Dead Sea for the midday service, Al-Attiyah’s outright advantage over Al-Kuwari was 17min 06.8sec. “It was a good run, no problems,” said Al-Attiyah. “We tried to keep a good pace. We try to win the seven points for leg two. I keep the same pace this afternoon. We have a good gap for day two and the roads will be clean now.”
Al-Kuwari had overtaken Abdullah Al-Kuwari, Salem and Juma on successive stages to snatch second place and Salem stormed into the MERC 2 lead when Juma’s Mitsubishi Lancer spluttered to a halt at the water splash and the Jordanian lost 17 minutes, slipping to sixth overall. “The car is fine now. We managed to fix with the 45 minutes at service yesterday,” said Salem.
Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari was in positive mood after climbing from fifth to second. “We were just cruising. You cannot compare the Group N cars really. I have a small misfire in most of the stages and we still have a lot of over steer. It is not easy when you don’t want to push and you want to finish the rally.
“We changed all the dampers, the hubs and the brakes after the crash on Friday. The team did a great job. I broke the two wheels on the left and steered the car off the mountain so that we did not roll and we did less damage. We were lucky.”
“I was waiting for this rally from last year,” said Al-Nuami. “I broke the engine on the third stage last time and I am happy to be back on the stages. The crash on the first stage yesterday was bad luck. I had a mistake.”
A crash accounted for Rakan Al-Rashed and a timing belt failure brought about Asem Aref’s demise before service. Only 10 cars from the international set out for a repeat run through the four stages.
Al-Attiyah slowed his pace over the remaining four specials, but still continued to set fastest times, although the re-run of Rawda accounted for Meshari Al-Thefiri’s Mitsubishi with drive shaft issues.
Salem lost five minutes on the penultimate stage and that opened the door for Abdullah Al-Kuwari to slip through into third place and snatch maximum MERC 2 points. It also deprived the host nation of a second successive podium finish after one of the most dramatic rallies in recent regional history. To add insult to injury, Salem retired before the last stage.
2016 Jordan Rally – positions after SS19 (unofficial @ 16.55hrs):
- Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah (QAT)/Matthieu Baumel (FRA) Skoda Fabia R5 2hr 42min 02.2sec
- Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari (QAT)/Killian Duffy (IRL) Skoda Fabia R5 3hr 00min 20.6sec
- Abdullah Al-Kuwari (QAT)/Adel Hussein (QAT) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X 3hr 07min 40.9sec
- Khalid Al-Suwaidi (QAT)/Giovanni Bernacchini (ITA) Ford Fiesta R5 3hr 21min 14.5sec
- Khaled Juma (JOR)/Faris Al-Tal (JOR) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VII 3hr 23min 55.9sec
- Rodolphe Asmar (LEB)/Joseph Matar (LEB) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX 3hr 37min 14.4sec
- Ihab Al-Shorafa (JOR)/Hazem Attiyat (JOR) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX 3hr 45min 19.2sec
- Rashid Al-Nuami (QAT)/Nicola Arena (ITA) Subaru Impreza 4hr 14min 42.6sec