Oman’s Zakariya al Aufi claims podium finish in MERC 2 category, Zakariya al Amri ends overall tenth
Nasser Saleh al Attiyah’s dominance on the wheels is becoming part of the regional rally circuit folklore and on Sunday, the Qatari driver once again stamped his authority in style.
Attiyah clinched his 15th title in the Qatar International Rally, the first round of the FIA Middle East Rally Championship (MERC) at Losail, Qatar, along with his French co-driver Matthieu Baumel in their Autotek Motorsport Volkswagen Polo GTi R5.
It was a record-breaking title win for Attiyah who bettered his own mark of 14 title victories. He also broke his record of total number of wins in the MERC, winning for the 77th time in the 218-event history of the series.
Attiyah’s winning margin was of 1min 48.4sec over his Qatari compatriot Abdulaziz al Kuwari and his Irish co-driver James Fulton in their Tok Sport Škoda Fabia R5. Completing an all-Qatari podium was Khalid al Suwaidi with a third-place finish with his navigator Hugo Maghalães.
Three Omani drivers had entered the fray including last season’s MERC overall runner-up Abdullah al Rawahi. The other two were Zakariya al Aufi and Zakariya al Amri.
While Rawahi’s car broke down on the second day on Saturday to force him out of the R5 category, Aufi and Amri, who had entered the MERC 2 category, finished eighth and tenth overall in the rally. Rawahi was expected to start on the final day with a time penalty but on Sunday morning confirmed before the restart that the car’s exhaust sensor issues were not fixed forcing him to retire.
However, bringing some cheer to the Oman camp were Aufi and his co-driver Ammar al Balushi in their Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX as they claimed a podium with a third-place in the MERC 2 class behind defending class winner Meshari al Thefiri of Kuwait, who won the title with his co-driver Nasser al Kuwari of Qatar in a time of 2hrs 17min10.9sec Qatar’s Rashad al Mohannadi and his navigator Yousef Juma of Jordan finished second with a time of 2hrs 22min31.3sec.
Aufi and Balushi timed 2hrs 33min51.9sec to round off the MERC 2 podium.
Speaking after the podium finish Aufi said, “I suffered tyre puncture on the last day and was also hit with a time penalty for taking a wrong route. Later in the final stage, I couldn’t go all out as my brakes failed due to a mechanical issue. Had I not encountered these problems, I would have finished second. But, I am happy with the result.”
Zakariya al Amri and his co-driver Mohammed al Mazroui in their Subaru Impreza managed to complete the rally with a tenth-place finish overall and fifth in the MERC 2 category. The Omani driver clocked 3hrs 01min00.2sec to come ahead of the last driver to complete the rally – Henry Kahy of Lebanon.
Amri said that ‘there was considerable improvement in his performance on the final day’. “I lost my advantage after I was hit by penalty on Saturday. In fact, during the last stage today, I was faster than Thefiri, who eventually won the MERC 2 category.”
“Today we did a really good job,” said Attiyah after the win. “It was great to have some high level competition this year.”
Any hope of seeing Attiyah and visiting WRC star Meeke battling for stage wins on the final day fizzled out when the Ulsterman was unable to restart after the team discovered engine damage on his SRT Škoda Fabia R5 that was sustained on stage five. A total of 11 of the original 17 starters completed the rally.