Qatar’s rally star Nasser Saleh Al Attiyah confirmed a record-breaking dozen wins in the QMMF Qatar International Rally, round one of the 2015 FIA Middle East Rally Championship, which took place in Qatar from 5 to 7 February 2015.

The defending regional champion and his French navigator Matthieu Baumel won all but two of the 12 special stages in their Ford Fiesta RRC and controlled the pace of the rally from the start.

Baumel duly earned his fourth MERC success and Al Attiyah’s 12th win at home in 13 years also marked his 55th career MERC win. The recent Dakar Rally winner is now just five Middle East rallies short of the 60 wins set by Dubai’s Mohammed Ben Sulayem between 1984 and 2002. Al Attiyah said:

It’s obviously always a special feeling to win here in Qatar and to make a winning start to the defence of my Middle East title was important. It’s been a great start to the year, with the win in Dakar and my 12th win on this rally. But this is a busy season and I must remain focused and take each event as it comes.’

Saudi Arabia’s Yazeed Al-Rajhi and Ulster co-driver Michael Orr needed to finish the event to get off to a clean start in their challenge for the regional title and they were on course for the runner-up spot until rear suspension damage intervened on the penultimate Salwa stage.

Abu Dhabi Racing’s Sheikh Khalid Al-Qassimi and Ulster co-driver Chris Patterson began the day in third in the only Citroën DS3 RRC on the entry list, but they dropped a minute on the second stage with a broken front drive shaft and lost even more time on the 10th special. But Al-Rajhi’s demise played into the Emirati’s hands and the Abu Dhabi driver snatched an unlikely second place, albeit 5min 53.20sec behind Al Attiyah at the finish. Al Qassimi said:

I suppose after the time I lost with the tyre on Friday, the best I could hope for was second place and I am quite happy with that under the circumstances. It was important to score points here.’

After two time consuming wheel changes on Friday, Qatar’s Abdulaziz Al Kuwari and Irish team mate Killian Duffy found a good pace on the first two specials of the final day. But they hit terminal engine trouble on the 10th stage and retired after moving into third place after stage nine.

The Qatari duo of Khalifa Al-Attiyah and Adel Hussein proved that it is possible to climb back to the podium from a Rally2 situation and they reached the finish in a fine third place in another Ford Fiesta RRC.

Salah Bin Eidan’s mechanics worked hard to repair his Mitsubishi’s broken suspension on Friday evening and the Kuwaiti was able to finish in fourth position and confirm maximum points in the Group N Trophy. The Iranian pairing of Ali Mesgarha and Vahidreza Vahdatinikzad put in an impressive showing on their Qatar debut to finish sixth and second in Group N.

Qatar’s Khalid Al Suwaidi and Irish co-driver John Higgins restarted under Rally2 and reached the finish in fifth overall. Qatar’s Abdullah Al-Kuwari and Irish team mate Enda Sherry struggled to seventh after a catalogue of problems and a determined Edith Weiss came home eighth with her Greek co-driver Vicky Psarakis and won the Ladies’ category for the second year running.

Day 2  – as it happened

Al Attiyah began the eighth Mekanes stage with a lead of 1min 17.50sec. Five survivors from the rigours of day one were joined by six returning in Rally2. Engine issues meant that the Iranian driver Mohammed Ghalehbani was not able to restart in his Subaru Impreza.

Nasser pipped Al-Rajhi by 2.6sec and extended his advantage to 1min 20.1sec and Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari was back on a competitive pace and only dropped 1.4sec to the leader with the second quickest time.  All 11 cars survived the opener.

Crews headed to Salwa for the 15.33km of the ninth stage and Al Attiyah extended his advantage over Al-Rajhi to 1min 29.7sec. Al-Qassimi dropped nearly a minute to the leader with a broken left-hand drive shaft and another impressive time by Al Kuwari saw the Qatari move 5.1 seconds in front of Al-Qassimi to claim third.

The 10th stage, starting and finishing near a sand processing plant on the road to Dukhan, was the longest of the event at 27.80km. Al-Attiyah set the target time of 15min 28.7sec, but he was beaten by Al-Rajhi and the Saudi reduced the Qatari’s lead to 55 seconds.

Al Kuwari’s brave morning challenge came to an end when he stopped with a broken engine and his battle with Al-Qassimi for third place was over, even though Al-Qassimi was struggling to service with his own transmission problems. Al Kuwari said:

It’s one of those things that can happen to anybody, but very disappointing to happen here on my home rally.’

The three stages were repeated on Saturday afternoon, although Qatar’s Rashid Al-Naimi was unable to restart after technical issues. Al Attiyah shaved 10 seconds off his morning’s time through Mekanes and that was sufficient for the Qatari to extend his lead over Al-Rajhi to one minute with two stages to run.

But the contest was settled in Al Attiyah’s favour in Salwa 2 when Al-Rajhi suffered rear suspension damage and retired. His demise handed second to Al Qassimi and third to Al Attiyah’s brother Khalifa. Al Qassimi’s consolation was the fastest time on the final stage. The rally proved as difficult as ever and only eight of the original 12 starters reached the finish in Doha.

Kuwait hosts the second round of the 2015 FIA Middle East Rally Championship on 12 to 14 March 2015.