The Sultanate of Oman returns to the international rallying arena for the first time since 2015 this weekend when the Oman Automobile Association hosts the Oman International Rally, the opening round of the 2020 FIA Middle East Rally Championship (MERC).
Eighteen teams will tackle three days of competitive action on demanding gravel special stages in the Al-Hajar mountains and the defending regional champion Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah tops the seeded entry list in his Volkswagen Polo GTI R5.
After the ceremonial start at the Oman Automobile Association (OAA), the timed action gets underway at 15.49hrs on Thursday afternoon with a short super special stage of 3.55km. Spectators are welcome to attend the stage taking place at the OAA.
A winner of five Oman rallies and a veteran of a record-breaking 73 MERC rally wins, Al-Attiyah teams up with Matthieu Baumel of France who, himself, has won 21 regional rallies.
Competitors passed through administration and technical checks on Wednesday. An upbeat Al-Attiyah said: “I am really looking forward to participate in this rally. I am pleased that the Oman International Rally has returned to the MERC again after around five years. For me, this is one of the best rallies in the Middle East.
“The stages remind me a little of Rally Finland. But you can see the mountains and enjoy a different landscape. I have taken part in this rally a lot and I hope everybody will succeed and make it to the finish. Hopefully we can do our best to win the rally.”
Al-Attiyah faces competition in the R5 category from two rivals. His cousin Nasser Khalifa Al-Attiyah drives a Ford Fiesta R5 and Oman’s Abdullah Al-Ruwahi has graduated from the MERC 2 category and a Subaru Impreza STi to drive a second of the powerful Fords.
Al-Ruwahi said: “This is the opening round of the Middle East and it will be held in Oman. We are very happy to have the championship back here. This will be my first time participating in an R5. I am still getting used to it. I hope everything will go well. The stages in Oman are very tough and beautiful as well. The goal is to finish on the podium.”
Omani drivers dominate the country’s return to the regional rallying scene and Zakaria Al-Aufi is relishing the challenge of succeeding against his international rivals on home gravel stages.
The Mitsubishi driver said: “I am the driver for the 968 Racing Team. I am excited for the Oman International Rally, the first round of the Middle East Rally Championship. I will be competing with a Mitsubishi Evo IX in Group N and am looking forward to the battle with the Middle East champions in this category. I will be working hard to finish in the top three in the event and to participate in more rounds of the championship this year.”
Omani rival Khalid Al-Manji added: “After stopping rallying for five years, I am returning at the Oman Rally. My last rally was this event in 2015. I have an N14 Subaru and am competing in Group N. The stages are very nice as usual. I know most of them, but they have been regraded and are well done.”