Muscat: No Omani driver has ever claimed the overall title in the highly-competitive FIA Mid-dle East Rally Championship (MERC) since the inaugural edition in 1984.
On Sunday, Oman’s young Abdullah Al Rawahi took an encouraging step towards achieving his dream and fulfilling the long-cherished ambitions of motorsports fans in the Sultanate when he finished a creditable runner-up in the 45th Rally of Lebanon, the fourth round of the MERC, to climb to top of the overall standings with two rounds to go.
It was yet another spectacular display by Oman Rally Team’s Al Rawahi and his Jordanian co-driver Ata Al Hmoud in their Skoda Fabia Rally2 Evo as they finished behind experienced Roger Feghali and his navigator Joseph Matar.
Lebanon’s Feghali teamed up with his countryman Matar to claim a record 16th victory at the rally.
The Lebanese led from the second special stage, won all but one of the 11 timed tests in his Motortune Racing-run Volkswagen Polo GTi Rally2 to finish 3min 46.4sec ahead of Al Rawahi and Ata Al Hmoud.
Favourite Nasser Saleh Al Attiyah of Qatar and his Andorra-based co-driver Mathieu Baumel won the opening super special and pushed the local crew hard for the next three stages before leaving the road and badly damaging their Autotek Motorsport Volkswagen Polo GTi Rally2 in the fifth special.
The Qatari’s retirement means that he now trails Al Rawahi in the MERC title race heading
to the remaining two rounds in Cyprus and Kuwait. Al Rawahi won the opening round in Oman but was forced to retire in the next at Qatar International Rally, won by Al Attiyah.
Rawahi’s stupendous form this season continued when he became the first ever Omani to win the Jordan Rally, the third round of the MERC, and now with his second-place finish in the challenging Rally of Lebanon is looking ahead to the remaining two rounds in Cyprus and Kuwait.
Al Rawahi leads the overall standings after four rounds with 84 points while Al Attiyah is close behind with 78 points.
In his exclusive remarks to Times of Oman from Beirut after climbing the podium, Al Rawahi
said: “This my first ever finish in Rally of Lebanon. Since I made my debut here in 2018, I had
some issues or crashes which meant that I was unable to finish the rally on previous occasions.”
“Rally of Lebanon is really tough because of its unique characteristics of stages, they’re very slippery and tricky. Preparing for this rally was important, especially since this was the fourth
round of the Middle East Rally Championship.”
Al Rawahi added: “We didn’t get enough practice since it’s the only tarmac rally on the MERC
calendar. We started the rally very cautiously and gradually increased our pace until we made it to the finish. I am very happy that we could finish in second place.”
The Omani rally driver said: “Tarmac conditions are tough and unique. I still have a lot to learn and it was a great learning experience competing along experienced drivers like Roger Feghali and Nasser Al Attiyah. I will need to maintain the gap at the top with two remaining rounds. I hope that I can achieve my dream of becoming the first Omani to be the MERC champion.”
So far Al Rawahi has already recorded four victories in MERC rally, which places him sixth best overall in the history of the championship. The only other Omani to win a rally in the MERC was Nizar Al Shanfari. Al Attiyah has to his credit a record 80 rally wins.
UAE’s Mohammed Ben Sulayem is the next best with 60 wins while Feghali is third with 16.
Qatar’s Saeed Al Hajri with 11 and UAE’s Khalid Al Qassimi with eight are the other drivers ahead of Al Rawahi, who shares same number of wins with Cyprus’s Andreas Tsouloftas.
The local Škoda Fabia R5 Rally2crew of Bassel Abu Hamdenand Firas Elias rounded off the
top three and Rabih Ayoub andGeorges Nadher finished fourth ina similar car.
Action got underway on the 11-stage event being hosted by theAutomobile and Touring Club of Lebanon (ATCL) with a 2.52km super special stage late on Friday evening, near Jounieh. A total of 29 cars were permitted to start, including six in Rally2 and 14 registered for the MERC.
The early contest was between Al Attiyah and Feghali. The Qatari beat his local rival by 0.3 seconds in the opener, before crews tackled two loops of three challenging asphalt special stages on Saturday at Monsef, Ain Aaaya and Sourat.
Feghali hit back strongly, won the opener by 9.3 seconds and extended his advantage to 13.3 in stage three. Feghali’s son, Alex, and Al Rawahi were the closest challengers to the front-running duo in third and fourth.
Feghali finished the morning loop with another fastest time and extended his cushion over Al
Attiyah to 20.6 seconds. MERC2 series leader Al Thefiri fell by the wayside after shedding a wheel on the second stage.
A high-speed accident which inflicted considerable damage to Al Attiyah’s Volkswagen side-
lined the Qatari on the re-run of Monsef and Autotek Motorsport decided to withdraw the Golf as the result of the incident.
Feghali duly claimed the fastest times in stages five, six and seven and reached the night halt with a 2min 47.4sec advantage over second-placed Al Rawahi.
The final leg used repeat runs through the classic tarmac stages of Zandouka and Zabbougha before the finish at the ATCL in Jounieh. Feghali was quickest in the opener to extend his lead to 2min 56.3sec. His lead grew to 3min 16.1sec through the ninth stage and there were no late dramas for the Lebanese, whodominated the last pair of timedtests to seal his 16th victory in Lebanon by 3min 46.4sec.
The next FIA Middle East Rally Championship continues inCyprus from October 6-8.
Rally of Lebanon result [top five]: 1. Roger Feghali (Lebanon)/ Joseph Matar (Lebanon) Volkswagen Polo GTI Rally2 (1hr 52min 53.4sec), 2. Abdullah Al Rawahi (Oman)/Ata Al Hmoud (Jordan) Škoda Fabia R5 Rally2 (1hr 56min 39.8sec), 3 Bassel Abu Hamdan Lebanon)/Firas Elias (Lebanon) Škoda Fabia R5 Rally2 (1hr 57min 35.4sec), 4 Rabih Ayoub (Lebanon)/Georges Nadher (Lebanon) Škoda Fabia R5 Rally2 (2hr 01min 40.7sec), 5 Elias Dehni (Lebanon)/Amin Akl (Lebanon) Citroën DS3(2hr 06min 23.7sec)