Wadad Hachichou

MUSCAT (Oman): Defending regional rally champion Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah tops the entry list for this week’s Oman International Rally the opening round of the 2020 FIA Middle East Rally Championship (MERC). The event takes place from February 6th-8th.

The Qatari is a five-time winner of the rally in Oman and will be keen to start the defence of his title in winning style with usual French co-driver Matthieu Baumel partnering him in a Volkswagen Polo GTI R5 run by Autotek Motorsport.

Oman’s return to the regional series for the first time since 2015 has attracted 18 entrants. Al-Attiyah will face a challenge from two other R5 cars in the hands of Qatar’s Nasser Khalifa Al-Attiyah and the host nation’s Abdullah Al-Ruwahi.

Both drivers wheel out Ford Fiesta R5s, while the event marks the regional return to action of Giovanni Bernacchini, the veteran Italian co-driver who amassed 25 regional rally wins with Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah. He teams up with Nasser Khalifa on this occasion. Al-Ruwahi will be partnered by Jordanian Ata Al-Hmoud.

The MERC 2 category for showroom-type Group N vehicles has been dominated by Meshari Al-Thefiri in recent seasons and the Kuwaiti returns to defend his title in a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X with Irish co-driver Derek O’Brien sitting alongside for the first time. Al-Thefiri faces competition in MERC 2 from the likes of Kuwait’s Jassim Al-Muqahwi.

Omani drivers dominate the entry in a range of N4 Mitsubishis and Subarus. Zakariya Al-Ofi leads the way with the likes of Saif Al-Harthy, Zakariya Al-Amry, Khalid Al-Manji and Faisal Al-Rashdi likely to feature on the upper reaches of the leader board.

Lebanon’s Henry Kahy has dominated the MERC 3 or two-wheel drive category for the last two seasons in his Škoda Fabia and returns to defend his title. Usual Jordanian co-driver Musa Djiyerian suffered a back injury on a round of the Saudi Desert Rally Championship at the end of 2019 and has been forced to miss the season on medical grounds. His place alongside Kahy is taken by fellow Lebanese Rony Maroun.

Running at the rear of the field behind a plethora of local N4 entrants, there are a pair of Group A Toyota Yaris rally cars for Omani drivers Mohammed Al-Mazroui and Waheeb Al-Kharusi.

The event starts from the Oman Automobile Association at 15.00hrs on Thursday (February 6th) and then crews head directly to an opening super special stage of four kilometres, starting at 15.46hrs.

Teams will then tackle two loops of three special stages on Friday (February 7th), starting with the first pass through the 19.20km of Al-Misfah at 09.59hrs. The 16.1 km of Saal follows at 10.32hrs and precedes Madinat Al-Irfan (11.6km) from 11.20hrs.

The three specials are repeated in the afternoon and a further two passes through three more stages brings the action to a close on Saturday afternoon. In a route of 532.50km, 201km will be against the clock.

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