Jordan out to set the bar high at start of Middle East Rally Championship

Expect to see a lot of exciting jumps and action across the course of the championship.
Updated 25 April 2018
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Jordan out to set the bar high at start of Middle East Rally Championship

  • Jordan first leg of this year's six-rally championship.
  • Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah revving up for a crack at a 14th title.

LONDON: Perhaps taking the lead from the races on its calendar, the Middle East Rally Championship (MERC) has run a rocky course in recent years; a mixture of super, special moments and bumps delaying its natural progress. 
For various reasons the MERC calendar has concertinaed in recent years, going from eight races in 2015 to just five last season. This year’s calendar will feature six, marking the return of the Kuwait Rally. It also, however, involves Qatar switching from its traditional slot as the season curtain-raiser to the final race, most likely as a means of delaying any issues that may stem from the ongoing diplomatic crisis between Qatar and the Anti-Terror Quartet.
Yet all these subplots and possible political machinations will fade today as the new season gets underway in Jordan. With a timed two-kilometer super-special stage on the shores of the Dead Sea, the surrounding water may be stagnant but the championship will very much come alive.
“We are finding ourselves in the unusual position of opening the championship this year,” Othman Nassif, the CEO of Jordan Motorsport, told Arab News. “This is a huge honor for us (and) we promise to deliver a stunning launch to the championship that will set the bar high for the rest of the season.
“We are focussing on our event and our event only, and of course hoping that other countries host successful rallies. We also hope that those that have left the calendar in recent years return to make the Middle East Championship one of the best regional circuits in rallying.”
The Jordan Rally has been practically ever-present on the international rally circuit since its inaugural event in 1981, including a trio of appearances on the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) calendar. Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah, the reigning MERC champion, regards it as one of his favorite races and has previously stated he would like to see it return to the WRC in the future.
Al-Attiyah, who will drive a Ford Fiesta R5 over the demanding gravel stages, is chasing history this season. Having won the MERC title 13 times in 15 years, the Qatari now holds just one championship fewer than Mohammed Ben Sulayem, the legendary UAE rally driver and current FIA vice president.
Victory for Al-Attiyah this weekend, as well as putting him on course to equal Ben Sulayem’s record of 14 titles, would also result in him equalling the Emirati’s record of most wins in Jordan. While Ben Sulayem won 12 times between 1984 and 2002, Al-Attiyah has won all but four events in the Hashemite Kingdom since claiming his first in 2003.
“People talk about records and, yes, it is nice to win rallies and break records, but it’s not about that,” said Al-Attiyah. “It is very important to keep this championship. We need to work to improve and keep it alive. Jordan is doing a very good job to keep the championship strong. We have seen ups and downs in the past and we always got through those. I am sure the championship will come back very strong.”
While critics argue that Al-Attiyah’s dominance threatens to detract from the championship, for Nassif, it should only motivate other drivers in the region to improve. He insisted fans of the Middle East championship must appreciate what they are seeing.
“To have Nasser with us this weekend going for a record is something special,” said Nassif. “But of course anything can happen in rallying and he knows he will again have to be at his best to win here.”
The four-day race will be held over 15 special stages throughout the Dead Sea and Jordan Valley areas. Organizers have run an extensive marketing campaign in the country to promote the event and expect a strong turnout, helped by free ticketing, and those who make the trip will, according to Nassif, be witnessing one of the greats.
“To be at the top of your game for so long takes something special. Nasser, like Mohammed before him, has been a real giant of motorsport not just in the Middle East, but also in world motorsport in general by winning the famed Dakar Rally. The challenge is there for the next generation to come and end his domination.”
 


MIDDLE EAST RALLY CHAMPIONSHIP RALLY SCHEDULE

These are the six races that will make up this year’s Middle East Rally Championship

26-28 April - Jordan Rally
15-17 June - The Cyprus Rally
6-8 July - Rally of Lebanon
5-7 September - Iran International Rally
1-3 November - Kuwait International Rally
15-17 November - Qatar International Rally


Al-Nassr ready to challenge for title after signing Brazilian Giuliano

Updated 21 August 2018
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Al-Nassr ready to challenge for title after signing Brazilian Giuliano

  • Riyadh club have not won the title since 2015 and have set their stall out to win it for the ninth time.
  • Brazilian Giuliano is the latest star to sign for Al-Nassr, joining Nigeria international Ahmed Musa.

LONDON: Al-Nassr are ready to challenge for the Saudi Pro League title after a busy summer in the transfer market and elsewhere. That is the message from the Riyadh club who have their sights set on reclaiming the title they last won in 2015.
The side finished third last season but under the energetic leadership of new president Saud Al-Suwailem, the eight time champions ended the transfer window on Monday by confirming the signing of former 
Brazilian international Giuliano from 
Fenerbahce for a fee of €10 million ($11.5 million).
It is the second biggest deal that Al-Nassr have done since the end of last season after the Ahmed Musa transfer, the Nigerian international arriving in early August from Leicester City Premier League. And having seen the 28-year-old attacking midfielder score 14 goals in the Turkish league last season, the club feel Giuliano is a great addition to their expanding squad.
Not only that, the club has brought in former Liverpool and Feyenoord goalkeeper Brad Jones, former Watford star and Morocco international Nordin Amrabat, Peru international defender Christian Ramos and also welcome back Saudi star Yahya Al-Shehri from his loan in Spain.
“We are very happy with the squad going into the new season,” an Al-Nassr official told Arab News.
“It was already a good one but we have strengthened in every area and especially have added some very exciting attacking players. If the coach can get the new signings to settle quickly then we could have a good season.”
There is no automatic demand for the title but an improvement on last season when Al-Nassr finished 12 points behind champions and Riyadh rivals Al-Hilal is required.
“We know that it won’t be easy as the top teams all look to be stronger after spending on some good talent from overseas,” added the official.
“We want to be challenging for the title, that is where we should be. It helps that we also have a coach that has done it before.”
For Al-Nassr, the return of Jose Daniel Carreno could be a game-changer. The Uruguayan tactician had a successful spell with the club and lifted the 2013 league title and the Crown Prince Cup in the same year. He returned to the club in March and his knowledge of Al-Nassr and the league is seen as vital.
“I think the changes to the team have been of great benefit,” Carreno said after last week’s 2-1 win at UAE side Al-Jazira in the Arab Champions Cup. “We have more firepower going forward and we will look to be aggressive and put teams on the backfoot, and press higher up the pitch than before.
“There is still work to do but we are moving to where we want to be. The league is going to be tough this time with Al-Hilal looking strong and signing players, and Al-Ittihad will not have the kind of season they had last time but we are looking forward to the challenge.”
There have been developments off the pitch too. President Al-Suwailem was appointed in April and has been working hard to improve standards at the club and increase revenues.
Earlier this month, the president went to the UAE to sign a four year sponsorship deal with Etihad Airlines that is reportedly worth SR50 million ($13.34 million) a year.
“There is more energy at all levels of the club,” said the official.
“Of course, it depends on what happens when the season starts but we can’t wait for the season to start.”