(MENAFN - Gulf Times) Nasser Saleh al-Attiyah and Matthieu Baumel were in a class of their own after 11 special stages of the 2019 Jordan Rally in the Dead Sea and Jordan Valley areas yesterday.
The Qatari is bidding for a record-breaking 13th victory at the second round of the FIA Middle East Rally Championship (MERC) and guided his Autotek-run Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 to the fastest time on each of the day's gravel stages until an alarm ruined his chance of completing a clean sweep on the final super special stage of the day. The outcome was a massive lead of 4min 21.2sec for the 14-time regional champion and 21 consecutive stage wins in this year's rally series for the Polo.
Al-Attiyah said: 'Last stage I see small alarm. I see fuel pressure. I decide just to go easily. Maybe we run without fuel. The gauge only shows zero, so I decide to finish the small stage without push. I am happy we are here now. I am quite happy. It is fantastic to win all the stages except for the super special. We are learning a lot with this car.
Fellow countryman Abdulaziz al-Kuwari made a slow start on his return to the Hashemite Kingdom for the first time in three years at the wheel of a Škoda Fabia R5 with British co-driver Marshall Clarke. He held second place, 48.5 seconds in front of the Jordanian crew of Marouf Abu Samra and Malek Hariri in a Motortune Ford Fiesta R5, after both drivers had lost time with flat tyres on the second loop. Al-Kuwari also sustained some car damage towards the end and his rival had throttle issues.
Abu Samra said: 'I am feeling good and relieved at the same time. I am glad we made it to the service at the end. I have a problem with the throttle sensor. At the end of the day I have enjoyed it and the gap is not that much between us on an international rally.
Meshari al-Thefiri found himself out alone with a massive MERC 2 advantage of 5min 13.9sec after fellow Kuwaiti Saleh bin Eidan fell by the wayside with mechanical issues after the fifth stage.
Saudi Arabia's Said al-Mouri returned to Jordan for the first time in six years with navigator Amr Refai and held fifth overall and second in MERC 2 after finding a competitive pace on the second loop of five stages.
He said: 'I have my confidence back. Six years since my last Jordan Rally and five years since my last rally, I am trying to get used to the pace notes. I am a bit slow but happy with my pace after six years.
Lebanese rookie Alex Feghali gained in confidence as the day progressed, benefiting from navigator Joseph Matar's experience, to reach the night halt in a fine sixth place and third in MERC 2.
Qatar's Nasser Khalifa al-Atya battled on through the pain barrier with steering issues after a puncture. He and experienced Italian co-driver Nicola Arena held sixth overall in a Motortune Ford Fiesta R5 until they retired after eight stages.
Oman's Zakariya al-Aufi was classified in seventh and Lebanon's Henry Kahy guided his Škoda Fabia to eighth and the MERC 3 advantage.
The Jordanian trio of Khaled Juma, Ihab al-Shorafa and Shadi Shaban retired on the first loop of stages with turbo, engine and clutch-related issues. They were joined by MERC 3 entrant Asem Aref after the water splash on the Baptism Site stage.
Jordanian drivers Salameh al-Gammaz, Tareq al-Taher, Ziad Miqdad, Amjad Anasweh and Sami Fleifel and Oman's Zakariya al-Amri were entered in the National Rally. Al-Ghammez led from the start before dropping two minutes on the super special stage in the unofficial results. The local driver reached the night halt 52.1 seconds behind leader al-Taher. Al-Amri lost fifth place after stopping in SS9.
Action began with runs through the Panorama and Syagha stages before a remote refuelling stop. Sixteen FIA entrants and six cars in a National Rally were permitted to start.
Al-Attiyah laid down the gauntlet with an opening time of 11min 55.7sec and coasted into a lead of 1min 08.3sec over al-Thefiri, who took control of the MERC 2 category through the opener
An out-of-practice al-Kuwari suffered a disappointing start and ceded 1min 34sec to the rally leader. Abu Samra was also off his usual pace and 9.6 seconds slower than the second Qatari driver.
Oman's Abdullah al-Ruwahi lost his brakes on the way to the stage, damaged a wheel and rolled four-times shortly after the start, while fellow countryman Zakariya al-Aufi dropped six minutes after his own close shave with disaster.
Al-Attiyah extended his lead to 1min 49.8sec through the second Syagha special with another quickest time, as al-Thefiri maintained second place from a resurgent al-Kuwari by just 0.2 seconds, despite overheating concerns. Al-Kuwari said: 'I lost a lot of time. My pace was one and a half seconds a kilometre off the pace. I am far away. It is my first proper rally after three years.
Runs through the Rama, Bahath and Baptism Site stages preceded a return to the Dead Sea for a midday regroup and service break. Al-Attiyah continued his winning ways through the trio of specials and reached the interval with a comfortable lead of 2min 39.6sec.
Al-Kuwari stormed into second place from Abu Samra with MERC 2 leader al-Thefiri in fourth. Saleh bin Eidan was al-Thefiri's closest MERC 2 challenger in fifth until he broke down on the road section to service and retired. Al-Atya slipped to sixth behind al-Mouri after losing three minutes in SS5 with a puncture.
Al-Atya said: 'I had one puncture before the end and the steering box was broken. So I suffer a lot with my shoulder. It is so hard to turn the car. My hands are getting numb and some cramp, a little bit. My co-driver drove from the last stage to give me a little rest.
Al-Attiyah said: 'It's looking very good. We had a good lead from the beginning. The car is working very well and I am happy. Nothing new for us in Jordan, but the roads are really tricky. It is very slippery.
Khaled Juma stopped in the third stage with turbo issues and Ihab al-Shorafa complained of a down-on-power engine and retired in SS4. Clutch issues forced Shadi Shaban out of the running in Bahath and Lebanon's Ahmad Khaled also retired. Asef Aref joined them with mechanical issues after the water splash on the fifth stage. Today teams will tackle two loops of five special stages, starting with the 11.74km of the Suwayma stage at 09.36hrs. Crews then tackle the Mahes (19.00km), Rawda (12.68km), Amar (8.56km) and Nebo (9.52km) stages before the midday regroup and service at the Dead Sea.
Positions after SS11 (top 5)
1. Nasser Saleh al-Attiyah (QAT)/Matthieu Baumel (FRA) Volkswagen Pole GTI R5 1hr 26min 21.1sec
2. Abdulaziz al-Kuwari (QAT)/Marshall Clarke (GBR) Škoda Fabia R5 1hr 30min 42.3sec
3. Marouf Abu Samra (JOR)/Malek Hariri (JOR) Ford Fiesta R5 1hr 31min 30.8sec
4. Meshari al-Thefiri (KWT)/Nasser al-Kuwari (QAT) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X 1hr 35min 28.8sec
5. Said al-Mouri (SAU)/Amr Refai (SAU) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X 1hr 40min 42.7sec