Nasser Saleh al-Attiyah and Giovanni Bernacchini finished the Jordan Rally in cruise control to kick-start the defence of the Qatari’s regional rally championship title at the Dead Sea Saturday.

On the 233rd event in the history of the FIA Middle East Rally Championship (MERC), al-Attiyah claimed his 85th career victory and a record-breaking 16th in Jordan since 2003. His Autotek Motorsport-prepared Skoda Fabia RS never missed a beat and he was able to try out different suspension settings over the closing stages on his way to a winning margin of 5min 31.6sec on his first appearance in the new car.

Bernacchini duly claimed his fifth victory in Jordan with al-Attiyah and his first since 2014. A 26th MERC success moved the Italian ahead of Chris Patterson into an outright third in the MERC Co-drivers’ Hall of Fame for most wins behind Ronan Morgan (41) and Mathieu Baumel (32).

Al-Attiyah, who claimed a clean sweep of eight stage wins yesterday, said: “I am really so happy to win here in Jordan. It is my favourite race. It is the most difficult race in the Middle East. To come back strong with the new car, we learn a lot. Thanks to the team and the organisation. They always make this rally strong. To win 16 times here is amazing. Lebanon is a different race and we need to be clever there as well.”

Abdulaziz al-Kuwari is now tackling a full programme of MERC events in a QMMF-backed Skoda Fabia and second place to add to the fourth he achieved on his home event means the Qatari is the new leader of the regional championship. Briton Marshall Clarke was his co-driver on this occasion. A puncture and subsequent tyre change after an accident was the only real issue for the duo after a polished performance.

Al-Kuwari: “Very difficult. As I say always, this is the most difficult rally in the world. It is like a school for rally drivers, especially for someone like me who has been way from rally cars more or less for five years. I was driving one rally per year. The pace was not my best. I can be faster but it is not easy to sit five years at home and come and be at Nasser’s speed. We went off in Turki, about 1.5km from the finish but we were lucky. We broke the arm and had a flat tyre and kept going to the finish. But I was cruising on the last stages to the finish. I am very happy to be leading the Middle East and the Jordan national championship. A good half of the season. I don’t think I am far off the pace and will get it soon hopefully.”

Shaker Jweihan delighted home fans with the final place on the podium. He and Lebanese co-driver Carlos Hanna dominated the MERC2 category from start-to-finish and the Mitsubishi driver claimed a second maximum haul of points towards the championship’s secondary category. Jweihan also moved into second place in the Drivers’ Championship behind al-Kuwari, while the result marked a first career MERC podium for both driver and co-driver.

Jweihan said: “This is the first time I get a third place. Last year I got a fourth. It was such a great rally and one for the books – a great memory. The stages were hard and the temperatures were high. This car is like driving a boat. I drive smoothly and we had no issues with the car. The team did a great job. Lebanon will be my first rally on tarmac but we have local events first.”

Denis Krotov is more accustomed to cross-country rallying in Ultimate class Minis and Toyotas but he enjoyed his MERC debut with Yury Kulikov and reached the finish in fourth overall. Shadi Shaban continues to hold second place in the MERC2 title race after he and Samer Issa finished sixth overall and second in class in their Mitsubishi.

Husam Salem overhauled Issa Abu Jamous in stage 12 to move into sixth and third in the showroom category but then he dropped back to seventh after a late charge from Sheikh Bader al-Fayez and his Lebanese co-driver Joseph Matar. Al-Fayez had left the road on the opening Shuna stage and diced with a reservoir in spectacular fashion before recovering strongly during the afternoon to climb three positions and finish fifth.

Ihab al-Shorafa and Yousef Juma came home in ninth and the Lebanese duo of Shadi al-Fakih and Samer Sfeir rounded off the 10 FIA finishers in their two-wheel drive Renault Clio RS entered in the Rally5 section. Palestine’s Hamada Odeh returned to action on day two after his crash on Friday but retired from 11th place on SS13.

A mechanical breakdown accounted for Nasser Khalifa al-Atya’s Ford Fiesta in the opening stage of the morning and a sizeable accident close to the dam on the Shuna stage put paid to Ameer Nassif’s finishing aspirations.

With defending champion Abdullah al-Rawahi unable to start the final day with his damaged Skoda Fabia, that leaves the title race wide open heading into the summer break before action resumes in Lebanon in early September.
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