The Sealine Cross-Country Rally, Qatar’s flagship off-road motor sport event, gets underway from the ancient northerly military fort at Al-Zubara today and precedes five days of punishing action across the length and breadth of the deserts of the State of Qatar.
The world’s leading off-road drivers and riders have come together through the organisational efforts of the Qatar Motor and Motorcycle Federation (QMMF) to tackle approximately 1,633 competitive kilometres in a complex and demanding route of around 2,452km. A huge organisational and logistical effort has been put in place to make the event possible, with events sanctioned by the FIA and FIM running in tandem over the five days.
Qatar’s Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah is the most successful Arab sportsman in history and is aiming for a fourth victory in the car category in five years, a second with the Overdrive Racing team and a third with French navigator Matthieu Baumel. “I suppose the strategy is like Abu Dhabi two weeks ago, to go for the win and keep up the good work in the championship,” said a relaxed Al-Attiyah. “We made a small test on Saturday afternoon to make sure everything was in order.”
His fiercest challenge this year comes on two fronts, but from one team: Vladimir Vasilyev is a former winner of the FIA World Cup and the Russian and his Saudi Arabian team-mate Yazeed Al-Rajhi will be looking for a first Sealine success in their X-raid Mini All4 Racings; the car in which Al-Attiyah used to win the event in 2014 and 2015.
The rally has attracted a provisional 40 starters in the car category and drivers from virtually every corner of the planet. Hoping to step on to the podium if the top three seeds hit trouble will be the likes of Al-Attiyah’s Toyota team-mate Marek Dabrowski, Portugal’s Ricardo Porém in a third X-raid Mini and the former Dakar winning German lady Jutta Kleinschmidt in an X-raid development two-wheel drive Buggy.
Flying the flag for the host nation in the main T1 category are the likes of Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah’s brother Khalifa in a third Overdrive Toyota. Mohammed Al-Harqan in a Nissan Patrol and Mohammed Al-Mannai in a powerful Chevrolet Buggy. Sheikh Hamed bin Eid Al-Thani, the 1993 FIA Middle East rally champion, will now run in the national category at the rear of the field with Emirati co-driver Arif Yousef Mohammed.
Adel Hussein Abdullah earned a stunning T2 victory in the category for Series Production Cross-Country Vehicles at the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge two weeks ago and tops an impressive T2 entry made up largely of Nissan Patrols. The Qatari rode a quad to victory in the 2011 Qatar International Baja, the candidate event for inclusion in the FIA World Cup, and would love to add a T2 win to his tally in a Nissan Patrol, which has attracted backing from Nissan Middle East.
T2 competition comes from the likes of Peru’s Raul Orlandini and Argentinean navigator Eduardo Blanco in a Toyota Land Cruiser and Nissan Middle East-supported Lebanese driver Emil Khneisser and his Russian navigator Alexei Kuzmich. Saudi Arabia’s Yasir Al-Saidan enjoyed a useful outing in Abu Dhabi and other T2 rivals include Ahmed Al-Shegawi, Mohammed Al-Rashid, Marco Piana, Saleh Abdullah and Jaralla Jarman. There are 15 T2 entries on the provisional list of starters.
Six vehicles are entered in the T3 category for Improved Cross-Country Cars, headed by Poland’s Aron Domzala, the Italian trio of Petro and Carlo Cinotto and Qatar’s Khalid Al-Mohannadi. All six crews are entered in the popular Polaris RZR 1000 off-road vehicle.
Three female T1 Nissan Patrol drivers, who earned their prize drives in a competition hosted by the QMMF in conjunction with FIA Women in Motorsport, round off the entry. The cars will be driven by French girl Charlotte Berton, New Zealand’s Emma Gilmour and Spain’s Cristina Gutierrez. Berton had a brief insight into life at the top of the leader board when she sat alongside top seed Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah during a test session on Saturday afternoon.
Defending Dakar champion Toby Price and his Dubai-based English rival Sam Sunderland top the motorcycle entry on their factory Red Bull KTMs, while Rafal Sonik is hoping for a fourth victory in the quad category in the last five years.
Today teams tackle the first selective section of 226.42km from the start, near the fort at Al-Zubara in the north of Qatar, to a finish close to Sealine. It is the shortest of the five stages and a fitting way for competitors to get the feel of what to expect over the coming days. The first motorcycle is due to cross the start podium at 09.00hrs.