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