Qatar Baja : Nasser Al-Attiyah out to test
Twenty cars, 47 motorcycles and 26 quads were flagged away from the official start of the NBK Group Qatar Baja at the Qatar Motor and Motorcycle Federation's headquarters in Doha today (Thursday). The final round of the FIA International
Cup for Cross-Country Bajas is being held under the patronage of HH Abdullah Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, the Prime Minister of Qatar. Running in reverse seeding order, motorcycle and quad entrants were the first competitors to tackle Thursday's opening 4.60 kms 'super special' stage, near West Bay Lagoon, north of Doha, but the battle for honours in the car category was the centre of attention for the European teams.
"I have taken part in one Dakar and several races in Africa, so the dunes I will face here over the next two days will not be completely new to me," said Spain's Marc Blazquez, bidding to clinch the FIA Baja Cup on Middle Eastern soil.
Blazquez headed into the opening 'super special' seven points ahead of his Portuguese rival Rui Sousa in the championship standings and was understandably confident. "I will do my own race. Rui has to beat me. I know that if I take no risks and drive cautiously then I will be okay."
But Sousa played down his chances of taking victory and has the additional handicap of running in a rented Nissan Patrol GR, the near-standard Japanese car being far less powerful than the normal T1 racer he uses in European off-road races. "I hired a car from Dubai and it is only a T2," said Sousa. "I have never driven on the dunes before, so this will be a new challenge for me. It will be a good chance to learn about the dunes and the sand."
Their closest rival in the seeding, Qatar's Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah, needs no introduction to sand dunes and has become the most exciting rallying prospect in the Arab world in the last two years. Unbeaten in the region since last September, Al-Attiyah knows that he is the favourite to repeat last year's win on the Qatar Baja, as he completes preparations for the Dakar Rally.
"I will drive the BMW X5 here in Qatar," said Al-Attiyah. "It is last year's car fitted with the new suspension we will use on the Dakar. It is fantastic. The new suspension is really great in the sand. I have been testing in Morocco recently, but this will be another good chance to push the car hard and find the limit."
Meanwhile, one competitor is facing a challenge of a different kind. Qatar's Adel Hussein usually competes alongside Misfer Al-Marri as a co-driver in the FIA Middle East rally series, but decided it was time to enter the limelight himself - on a quad. "This is my first time on the quad," said Hussein. "I would like to take part in international rallies, particularly the Dakar, and what better way to start than to race at home here on the Dakar."
"I wish everyone a safe and successful Baja," said Nasser Khalifa Al-Attiyah, President of the Qatar Motor and Motorcycle Federation, at the start. "We are a progressive Federation here in Qatar and are keen to encourage people to compete in the sport and progress through the ranks. Nasser Saleh has shown over the last two years that it is possible to make rapid progress with the right backing and support. We hope to build upon this in the future."
Seven German and Italian motorcycle riders and four car drivers suffered the disappointment of not making the official start, after attempts by QMMF officials to free their vehicles from a UAE border control were thwarted by alleged paperwork irregularities. The non-starters included two of the pre-event motorcycle favourites Oscar Polli and Loris Volpato and the vehicles of Germany's Sven Knorr, Tino Schmidt and Italians Giuseppe Fornasari and Franco Corradin.
Today (Friday) is the longest day of the event and teams will tackle two timed loops in and out of the Sealine Centre bivouac to the south of Doha. There will be a shorter 115.54 kms stage and a longer 267.83 kms section, with bikes tackling the longer one early on Friday morning and the cars crossing the stage in the afternoon.
The event has attracted support from the NBK Group, Qatar National Bank, NK Portakabin, Qatar Petroleum and Qatar Navigation and will finish on Saturday afternoon after a further timed selective section.
Press Release NBK Group Qatar Baja