Qatar’s Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah and German co-driver Timo Gottschalk cruised into a 38.8 second lead in the Saudi Arabia Ha’il Desert Challenge after the opening 6.8km super special stage, near Ha’il, in the north-central region of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on Tuesday.
Bidding to win his third event of the season so far, the Qatari will now open the road for the first of two punishing selective sections through the An Nafud desert on Wednesday. The Dakar Rally winner arrived in Ha’il on Sunday and quickly adapted to being back in his Wolfsburg-prepared Volkswagen Race Touareg, after winning last weekend’s Qatar International Rally in a Ford Fiesta S2000.
Once starters had been flagged away from the start by Saudi Arabian Motor Federation (SAMF) president His Royal Highness Prince Sultan Bin Bandar Al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s Saleh Al-Saleh and Dubai-based French co-driver Xavier Caminada set the second fastest time on the short opening stage in their Toyota Team Saudi Arabia-run Toyota FJ Cruiser.
The UAE’s Nabil Al-Shamsi and Nou Bu Humaid were third in a Nissan Patrol, while Sami and Abdullah Al-Shammeri set the fourth fastest time in a Bakhashab Isuzu D-Max. Regular Reem circuit racer Farhan Al-Ghaleb and co-driver Tariq Ramah finished the timed super special stage in fifth position of the 34 crews who eventually made the start at the Maghwat conference facility in Ha’il on Tuesday afternoon.
Twenty-five of the drivers in the rally are from Saudi Arabia, with Dubai-based Briton Ian Barker joining six Emiratis, one Kuwaiti and one Qatari on the starting list. Among a handful of non-starters was Qatar’s Sheikh Hamed Bin Eid Al-Thani – who has travelled to Ha’il to view the action but was unable to prepare his Nissan in time – and Oman’s Nizar Al-Shanfari, a regular competitor in Middle East special stage events throughout the 1990s. Barker was the only drive to hit trouble on the day’s super special and the Briton was awarded a one-hour time penalty for failing to finish the stage.
The event is being organised by the SAMF under the patronage of HRH Prince Saud Bin Abdul Mohsen Bin Abdul Aziz, prince of the Ha’il region and chairman of the high commission for the development of Hail and chairman of the organising committee and the new Presidency of His Royal Highness Prince Sultan Bin Bandar Al-Faisal.
Legs two and three will run through the An Nafud desert to the north and west of Ha’il on Wednesday, February 9th and Thursday, February 10th.