(MENAFN - The Peninsula) At the end of day one of the Dubai International Rally, the final round of the 2009 FIA Middle East Rally Championship, it is Lebanese driver Nicholai Georgiou who has virtually assured himself a place amongst a select group in the Pirelli Star Driver programme.
His close contender, Kuwait's Meshari Al Thafiri had to retire following mechanical problems, while title holder Nasser Al Attiyah drove closer to a sixth championship crown.
Al Attiyah began in confident fashion (yesterday morning) taking a commanding lead after stage one, of the five inaugural stages but submitted to virtual domination of stages two and three by local hero Rashid Al Ketbi.
However, Al Ketbi struggled to complete special stage one (SS1) when his brand new Skoda Fabia Super 2000 overheated, then recovered.
The car, which Al Ketbi hoped would help him secure the championship, had been delivered straight from the Skoda factory in Czechoslovakia just days before the rally.
Special stage one also proved a daunting task for Pirelli Star hopeful Al Thafiri and British duo Ron Oakley and Mark Turner who damaged their cars on the harsh terrain, proving once again that the Dubai International Rally stages are tough on both the cars and drivers.
It was SS2 that took the rally's third casualty when the Super 2000 Toyota of Ahmed Al Sabban and his UAE co-driver Wael Marjan lost power forcing them to retire and opt for a Super Rally start on day.
Things did not go too well either for Georgiou, known affectionately amongst friends as Nick, after he suffered a rear axle failure, and despite the loss of vital minutes is now closer to joining a select group within the Pirelli Star Driver programme, subject to FIA approval.
Georgiou lost out on victory last year on a technicality to Cypriot Nicos Thomas, but the Lebanese youngster has been the most improved driver in the region this season.
He won the West Zone of the Pirelli Star Driver competition in Syria, while Al Thafiri qualified for the regional final through the Gulf Zone event in Kuwait back in March.
SS2 and SS3 gave Al Ketbi the opportunity to make up for lost ground, which he did by posting the quickest time, up to 41.4 seconds clear of Saudi Arabia's Yazeed Al Rajhi in second place on SS2 and 5.7 seconds on SS3.
Going into the final stages, all eyes were on Al Rajhi given his consistency through the better part of the morning but disaster struck mid-afternoon and he failed to complete the final stage in the designated time.
The Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE (ATCUAE) received over 25 entries for the popular final round of the championship, set amidst the beautiful mountains of Hatta, 115 kilometres north of Dubai.
Among those entries, no less than half are based in the region, including six UAE Nationals, one of whom, Rabab Al Tajir, is part of the only all female team who entered the 31st edition of the Dubai International Rally, in the 25th year of the FIA Middle East Rally Championship.
Twenty rally cars started on day one.
With local forecasters predicting possible rain showers today, officials are set for another exciting day ahead that will finish at the Downtown Burj Dubai, the world's most prestigious square kilometre.