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Al-Attiyah, Bernacchini lead Qatar Rally

Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah and Italian co-driver Giovanni Bernacchini led the 2013 Qatar International Rally, the opening round of the FIA Middle East Rally Championship, by 4.8 seconds after six new timed special stages to the west of Doha yesterday.
Driving a Ford Fiesta RRC, the Qatari had been involved in a frantic tussle with Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Khalid Al-Qassimi and British navigator Scott Martin over the rocky desert stages and mere seconds had separated the pair all day. The defending regional champion, who is bidding for his 10th Qatar Rally win, eventually finished the day with three stage wins.
“Today was not a day to push too much,” said Al-Attiyah. “The new stages here were very hard on the cars. Tomorrow they are smoother and we can go faster. But it is not easy.” Saudi Arabia’s Yazeed Al-Rajhi made his traditional flying start, but a little over exuberance on the crucial third stage cost him the lead and his place in the rally. Al-Qassimi and Al-Attiyah took up the fight, with Qatar’s Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari and Khalid Al-Suwaidi trailing in their wake.
The Qatari duo reached the overnight halt in third and fourth places. Sheikh Abdullah Al-Qassimi held fifth after Jordan’s Alaa Rasheed was forced out in the fifth stage.
Rookie Emirati Mohamed Al-Mutawaa led the new two-wheel drive category in his R3 Citroën DS3.
Young Abu Dhabi junior driver Mohamed Al-Sahlawi ran out of spare tires on his debut and was forced into SupeRally today, as puncture-related incidents decimated the original 18-car field.
Al-Attiyah led 17 rivals into the new 21.81km Al-Shabhana stage for the first time. Tactics would come into play from the outset and all eyes were on whether the Qatari and his closest rivals would push hard to try and take the early advantage.
The nine-time rally winner set the target time of 10min 48.1sec and edged into a 5.5-second advantage over Al-Rajhi, with Khaled Al-Qassimi a close third. Al-Rajhi caught the dust of Sheikh Abdullah Al-Qassimi and was granted a three-minute starting gap for the second special, despite puncturing two tires. It was proof he had been at ‘full attack’.
Al-Kuwari and Al-Suwaidi were fourth and fifth, but Kuwait’s Meshari Al-Thefiri dropped six minutes to the leaders and Jordan’s Zaid Dahshan retired with fuel pump issues at the end of the stage.
The 24km of the new Umm Wishah stage followed and Al-Attiyah reached the flying finish in 11min 58.1sec, but he was pegged back by a flying Al-Qassimi in the works Citroën. Al-Rajhi was even quicker and a stunning time by the Saudi pushed him into the overall lead. Turkey’s Burcu Cetinkaya crashed her Mitsubishi and managed to continue, but rear axle problems accounted for Edith Weiss.
Crews had feared the outcome of the third 25km Al-Karaana stage after the recce. The last few km were particularly rocky and none intended to risk their cars on this section. The special came back to bite Al-Rajhi: he damaged a wheel and the front suspension in the stage and was forced out of the running, as Al-Qassimi maybe took one too many risks himself and escaped with a midday lead of 4.3 seconds over a more cautious Al-Attiyah.
Al-Suwaidi completed SS3 with a broken drive shaft sustained at the end of stage two and punctures were commonplace, with Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari destroying the right-hand rear of his car after a tire disintegrated and Alaa Rasheed damaging several tires.
“It was just not worth pushing hard in there,” said Al-Attiyah. “Yazeed had his problem, Khalid damaged the front of his car, it was a matter of getting through safely.” Cetinkaya pulled out at the service point: “I rolled one time and landed on the side of the car in the second stage and carried on but I should have stopped there and gone for SupeRally,” said Cetinkaya. “Instead I did another stage and had more problems with tires and lost more time.” The three stages were repeated in the heat of the afternoon over deteriorating track surfaces and Al-Attiyah attacked and shaved over 16 seconds off his first run through the Al-Shabhana stage. He beat Al-Qassimi by 7.2 seconds and moved into a 2.9-second lead, as Al-Kuwari and Al-Suwaidi held third and fourth overall.
A repeat of Umm Wishah was next up and Al-Qassimi was quickest again by 5.8 seconds to retake the overall lead from Al-Attiyah by just 2.9 seconds. Al-Kuwari also beat Al-Attiyah to retain a solid third place, but Alaa Rasheed lost fifth position and retired after a series of puncture-related incidents.
The second run through Al-Karaana was treacherous and Al-Attiyah emerged with the quickest time to hold an overnight lead of 4.8 seconds.