The Qatar Cross-Country Rally gets underway with a 4.85km super special stage at the Losail motocross facility within the confines of the race circuit on Tuesday afternoon. Ahead of a quality field of 32 cars, 13 motorcycles and seven quads lies a daunting route of nearly 2,000 kilometres that will take competitors to the outermost reaches of the State of Qatar in a demanding, dusty and sandy trail laid on by officials at the Qatar Motor and Motorcycle Federation (QMMF).
The fourth round of the FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies and round two of the FIM Cross-Country Rallies World Championship has attracted the leading contenders in all the relevant categories and the scene is set for a fascinating tussle for supremacy in the FIA T1 and T2 car categories and both the FIM motorcycle and quad sections.
Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah is still recovering from injury, but the Qatari has only ever been beaten once on this event – when he suffered an engine failure on his Buggy in 2013 – and the two-time Dakar champion will be hoping to bounce back into title contention over the four desert selective sections of his home round of the FIA World Cup.
Sheikh Khalid Al-Qassimi took advantage of Al-Attiyah’s accident in the recent Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge and now has a commanding lead in the series’ standings after three rounds. The Abu Dhabi Racing driver’s Peugeot 3008 DKR arrived at Losail on Monday morning and the 2004 FIA Middle East rally champion will be hoping to collect as many points as possible on his first visit to this event, although he has competed in Qatar’s round of the MERC on many occasions.
“This is going to be an entirely new experience for me and I am looking forward to it,” said Sheikh Khalid. “The terrain is different to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, but I am here to gain experience in this format of racing and I hope it will be a successful experience.”
The car category has strength in depth: Saudi Arabia’s Yazeed Al-Rajhi drives the first of three X-raid built Minis and Al-Attiyah’s team at Overdrive Racing fields additional Toyota Hiluxes for Aron Domzala, Erik van Loon and Leeroy Poulter.
Qatar’s Mohammed Abu Issa drives one of the Minis and the former quad category winner lies second in the Drivers’ Championship after three rounds. “This is exciting and a challenge. It’s good to be in something faster, but this is not an easy rally and the conservation of the tyres will not be easy at all. It’s one more rally to add to my books. Hopefully I can finish. I am here for the experience. I will try and push and see what happens. For me, it’s unbelievable to be second at this stage, but we have to maintain it now.”
The Czech duo of Martin Prokop and Miroslav Zapletal, the Mobilex Racing’s Team’s Yuriy Sazonov and Yerden Shagirov, South Racing’s Jürgen Schröder and Fernando Alvarez, Saudi Arabia’s Khalid Al-Feraihi and Abu Dhabi’s Yayha Al-Helai add weight to the top of the formidable T1 field. Thomas Bell, France’s Yannick Commagnac, Ahmed Al-Malki and the Qatar duo of Abdullah Al-Rabban and Mohammed Al-Mannai round off the T1 entry.
Adel Abdulla is the defending FIA T2 World Champion in his Nissan Patrol, but the Qatari has endured a difficult start to the defence of his title. Saudi Arabia’s Yasir Saeidan and Abu Dhabi Racing’s Mansour Al-Helai have stolen a march on the Doha driver through the first three rounds and the likes of Ahmed Al-Shegawi, Mohammed Al-Harqan, Rashid Al-Mohannadi, Jamal Fakhroo and Mohammed Al-Meer have made the battle for top spot in the section for series production cross-country vehicles an intriguing prospect.
Co-driver Chris Patterson won five Qatar International rallies with Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah between 2004 and 2008 and is competing alongside Mansour Al-Helai in a T2 Toyota Land Cruiser. “It’s all new basically, but I love coming to Qatar. This is a different thing with the navigation. But I am looking forward to the challenge of learning new things.”
Al-Helai added: “T2 is all about going to every event. If you miss one event the other cars get an advantage. The reason I love T2, it’s the only thing that will make you understand a car and the challenge of competing against other people. In the future, if you go in T1, you have been in hell and you understand everything that you need to do in a T1 car!”
There are also T3 entries for Ukraine’s Vadym Prytuliak, Qatar’s Khalid Al-Mohannadi and Frenchman Claude Fournier – all three at the wheel of Polaris RXR 1000s.
Red Bull KTM Factory Racing, Rockstar Energy Husqvarna Factory Racing and the Monster Energy Honda Team are all in attendance in Qatar to head the motorcycle category. There are seven official factory riders, with Sam Sunderland, Matthias Walkner and Antoine Meo representing KTM, Pablo Quintanilla and Pierre Alexandre Renet wheeling out a pair of Husqvarna FR450s and Paulo Gonçalves and Kevin Benavides entered by Honda.
Sunderland is the man of the moment. He won the Dakar Rally this year and played the tactical game to perfection to move into an eight-point lead in the FIM Cross-Country Rally World Championship by winning the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge. The Dubai-based Briton was pushed hard in the UAE by all his rivals and both Quintanilla and Gonçalves, in particular, will be hoping to put the disappointment of missing out on a win in Abu Dhabi behind them.
KTM’s on-event team manager and former rider Jordi Viladoms said: “This is a very different rally compared to Abu Dhabi. The navigation is very important and is really difficult. It is always possible to ride in groups, like two weeks ago. They need to be really careful with the navigation. We put the bikes straight on a truck after the last race and had a little ride out on Sunday. The terrain here is much more stony, but there are no team orders. Our riders are strong and free to do what they want. They all have options to win races.”
The leading privateer rider is likely to be Ride to Abu Dhabi’s Mohammed Al-Balooshi on his factory replica KTM 450 Rally. One year ago the Emirati crashed heavily in Qatar, but has recovered strongly and finished seventh in Abu Dhabi two weeks ago.
Bolstering the motorcycle entry are Dubai’s experienced David McBride, Vendetta Racing’s David Mabbs, Qatar’s Ahmed Al-Kuwari and the Orlen Team duo of Adam Tomiczek and Maciej Giemza.
Rafal Sonik is a three-time winner of the event on his Honda in the quad category, but the veteran Pole is under pressure to score points in Qatar after fuel and engine issues dropped him out of contention for a podium at the first round of the FIM Quad World Cup in Abu Dhabi.
Several of his rivals took full advantage and, even though Abu Dhabi winner Fahad Al-Musallam is not on the entry this week, Italy’s Camilia Liparoti, Argentina’s Lucas Innocente, Peru’s Alexis Hernandez Ponce, Guatamala’s Rodolfo Schippers, Dutchman Kees Koolen and South Africa’s Martin Beyers will be gunning for the Pole and top spot on the quad podium.
“We are delighted to welcome so many international visitors to Losail for the start of the Qatar Cross-Country Rally and wish everyone a safe and successful rally,” said Abdulrahman Al-Mannai, President of the QMMF.
Tomorrow (Tuesday), competitors will tackle the 4.85km super special stage at the Losail motocross track from 15.40hrs onwards. Cars entered in the National Baja follow from 16.25hrs and the FIA cars will be last on to the course from 16.55hrs.