2013 Middle East Rally Championship set for fireworks in Round One

The Middle East’s finest rally drivers have completed their reconnaissance of the new special stages in the Qatar desert that will become the battleground for this weekend’s Qatar International Rally, Round One of the FIA Middle East Rally Championship (MERC), organised by the Qatar Motor and Motorcycle Federation (QMMF).

Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah is now back from his recent foray on the Dakar Rally in South America and keen to continue his tremendous run of form in the MERC that has seen him win the regional title eight times in the last ten seasons and the Qatar Rally nine times in the same period.

Al-Attiyah will run one of a fleet of Ford Fiesta RRCs looked after on the event by Autotek Motorsport and several of the rally technicians who supported him for those nine thrilling stages of the recent Dakar where he pushed MINI’s Stéphane Peterhansel all the way and secured three stage wins in a virtually new Californian-built Buggy.

“The Dakar was a fantastic experience for me and I am proud of what we achieved in such a short space of time,” said Al-Attiyah. “But now it’s back to the business of the Middle East Rally Championship and making sure that I start the season with a win here. The entry is strong and it will not be easy.”

Nasser Al-Attiyah in Dubai action last season.

The UAE’s Sheikh Khalid Al-Qassimi won the regional rally series in 2004 and has won seven MERC rallies, but never the event in Qatar. At the helm of a new Abu Dhabi Racing Team this season, and with the experienced Scott Martin as his new co-driver, Khalid is relishing the start of his 2013 season and his new association with the Citroën team. Al-Qassimi will drive one of three Citroën DS3s entered in the Qatar International Rally.

The other two cars from the French manufacturers’ stable will be in the hands of other members of the Abu Dhabi Racing Team. Young Emiratis Mohammed Al-Matawaa and Mohamed Al-Sahlawai drive the new machines and have the experienced Ulster co-drivers Stephen McAuley and Allan Harryman alongside.

Former Abu Dhabi Junior Team members Majid Al-Shamsi and Bader Al-Jabri complete the new team line-up in a pair of Subaru Imprezas. John Higgins and Nicolas Klinger debut as co-drivers in Qatar.

Turkey's Burcu Cetinkaya in Qatar action last year.

Burcu Cetinkaya burst on to the regional rallying scene two years ago and stunned the local fraternity last season with a fine fourth overall in the Qatar Rally with co-driver Cicek Guney in a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. Ranked in the top three female rally drivers in the world in a recent survey, Cetinkaya will be hard-pushed to better last season’s tremendous finish, but she returns to Qatar action with a Mitsubishi and new co-driver Ozlem Akguc on the notes.

Germany’s Edith Weiss has been competing in the MERC since 1992 and fondly recalls her first Qatar outing 21 years ago. This year she teams up with Rony Maroun in a Subaru Impreza. “I always enjoy the rallying in Qatar. I have many fond memories of my time here,” said Edith, who finished ninth last season with Greek co-driver Vicky Psarall.

Top Run Racing has also sent a car to the opening round of the MERC. The well known Italian car preparation company rose to prominence in the days of the Lancia Delta Integrale in the 1980s and will be running Qatar debutants Michele de Nora and Sergio Secchi in Doha. De Nora has considerable experience in European rallying and in select rally-raid events and will drive a Subaru this weekend.

The 2013 Qatar International Rally gets underway from the QMMF at 08h00 on Friday and finishes at 16h20 on Saturday afternoon after 12 timed desert special stages covering 264.38km.

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Qatar's Khalid Al-Suwaidi in flying form in Jordan.