When Saudi rally driver Yazeed Al-Rajhi and his Irish colleague Michael Orr head to the Baja Portalegre in Portugal at the end of October, they will be just one race away from being crowned world champions.
The Toyota duo currently lead the 2021 FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Bajas (T1) standings after winning the Italian Baja last week.
It would be, in fact already is, one of the most remarkable motorsports comebacks in recent times.
“I really feel happy, we had an accident that made us miss two races earlier this year, and we have worked hard to reach this point,” Al-Rajhi told Arab News. “It wasn’t easy at all, we made a big comeback to defend our title, a solid comeback I would say, to regain the World Cup for Cross-Country Bajas’s title.”
“Sharqiyah Baja was the second stop for us in the World Cup after we won Dubai Baja,” the 39-year-old said. “We were supposed to enter the first round of the World Cup, which was Baja Russia, but I had to skip regarding to my business commitments.”
It was at the Sharqiyah Baja in Saudi Arabia that Al-Rajhi and Orr would suffer an accident that would keep both of them out of action for varying periods of time.
“We had started strongly and we were in the lead until the day of the accident,” the Saudi driver said. “It was an unfortunate day for us and for some contenders in the other categories, and we sadly lost one of our own in that Baja.”
“Michael and I had minor injuries in the neck but my recovery was faster than his,” Al-Rajhi said. “I had to skip two months of driving for recovery. After that, I made my comeback at the Andalucia Rally with Dirk von Zitzewitz who covered Michael’s place until his comeback at Silk Way Rally.”
Since Orr’s return, the duo have set a relentless pace to once again lead the standings going into the season-closing Baja Portalegre on Oct. 28-30. Al-Rajhi is grateful to be still in contention.
“Although the incident was a major setback for our strong ongoing pace and we had to fight from the back to regain our place in the lead, we are glad that we are alive and had the chance to come back and compete for it,” he said.
Al-Rajhi insists that he does not see anyone race or win as more important than any other, but all part of the same journey toward the championship.
“Well, we will enter the last Baja of the season, which will be held in Portugal, with the same spirit and mentality as we did before,” he said. “Every race has its own mystery and surprises so we will stay focused, and we’re looking forward to continue fighting and to win the World Cup title.”
A triumph would be the latest high point for Saudi motorsports, which in recent years has had its profile raised by the hosting of several of the world’s biggest and most famous races; the Dakar Rally, Formula E, Extreme E and this year for the first time, in December, the Saudi Arabian Formula 1 Grand Prix in Jeddah.
Above all, the Saudi Arabian Automobile and Motorcycle Federation is looking to invest in producing home-grown champions in the coming years.
“Our government is encouraging a new generation of Saudis to get involved in the sport, and there are more and more achievements being experienced in the motorsport industry in the Kingdom,” he said. “The reason behind this is the ambitious Vision 2030 by his Highness Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.”
“Absolutely the federation’s support is always needed in motorsports and I believe that they are playing a massive role in supporting the young and rookie talents,” Al-Rajhi said. “I started in rallies when the SAMF was established in 2007, long before many other Saudi racers at the time. So I know how it feels to be new in the field. I’m always happy to see young talent who want to follow my lead.”
“I was the youngest Saudi driver to win a rally on home soil and the first Saudi to win a stage in Dakar, the toughest race in the world,” he said. “I’m really happy to see the young generation rising.”
And as for Al-Rajhi’s biggest ambition, his answer is unequivocal.
“To win Dakar many times in the future, especially at home.”