ONE man’s misfortune could well be another one’s gain and the Qatar International Rally, the opening round of FIA Middle East Rally Championship (MERC) summed it up aptly.
Defending champion Nasser Saleh Al Attiyah, who was eyeing a 14th successive victory in Qatar, was leading till the penultimate stage before retiring with engine issues.
Defending MERC2 champion Rashed Al Naimi capitalised on Nasser’s misfortune and went on to win the rally where there were only two finishers, a first in the event’s history since it started in 1984.
His winning margin was somewhat flattering as Kuwait’s Meshari Al Thefiri could cross the chequered flag only after 25min, 28.7sec.
Yet, it was one of the most dramatic and memorable rallies in recent times, especially with the Qatar Motor and Motorcycle Federation (QMMF) revising the format with no service point throughout the opening leg.
Six of the 10 provisional starters were refused entry by stewards for contravening various FIA safety regulations and norms and only four cars started the main event.
A biting northerly wind and dust did not help matters either and the second stage was cancelled completely on safety grounds.
Rashed had in fact registered for the support category (MERC 2), yet ended up winning the biggest rally of his career.
“The target here was to win the MERC 2, but to top the Qatar Rally was a complete shock to me. Now my entire strategy for the rest of the season will’ve to be changed. It’s a short championship and I’ve a really good chance even to win the title,” said Rashed, who was driving a Subaru Impreza WRX STi.
In the run-up to the event, nobody had given Rashed and his Portuguese navigator Hugo Magalhaes, who was making his debut in the championship, much of a chance. All eyes were certainly on Nasser and to some extent on Khaled Al Suwadi, who led initially in the opening leg before his Skodia Fabia R5 rolled out of the ninth stage.
But it was Rashed who stole the spotlight and put his more illustrious rivals in shade.
“I had a flat tyre on the last stage and damaged the suspension. But it wasn’t too bad and I managed to finish and win my first rally in the Middle East. It’s a great feeling,” added Rashed.
The MERC caravan now moves to Jordan for the second leg, which will be held from May 4 to 6.