Twelve-time Middle East rally champion Mohammed Ben Sulayem takes his Ford Focus World Rally Car on the trail of another double title triumph tomorrow in Syria, where a major sponsorship boost for the FIA Middle East Championship could be quickly followed by one even more important development.
Ben Sulayem has warmly welcomed the move by Emirates, the international airline of the UAE, to back the Syrian International Rally, which gets under way in Damascus at 9.30 am Thursday.
On course to clinch both the Middle East drivers’ and manufacturers’ championships for Ford, the Arab world’s top driver said: “Rallying needs the support of sponsors like Emirates to keep it alive.”
Ben Sulayem, who could land his 13th Middle East drivers’ crown with victory in Syria, recently urged more manufacturers to follow Ford’s lead in supporting the regional series, and he could get his wish.
Seeded second behind Ben Sulayem in Damascus, Cypriot champion Andreas Tsouloftas will become a serious championship contender next year if, as expected, he acquires another World Rally Car from one of the World Championship teams.
More good news could follow for the Middle East Championship if Saudi Arabia’s Abdullah Bakhashab and Oman’s Hamed Al Wahaibi are encouraged by Tsouloftas’ action to return from the World Championship circuit and make their own challenges to Ben Sulayem and Ford.
The prospect of a season-long battle of World Rally Cars developing in the Middle East over the next two years is Ben Sulayem’s hope, although for the next two days his mind will be focused on the immediate job at hand – to win the Syrian International Rally on its championship debut.
The presence of Tsouloftas, Middle East Group N champion elect Sheikh Abullah Al Qassimi, and a succession of other Mitsubishi entries, means that Ford is getting more serious opposition, bent on derailing its regional supremacy with a fifth manufacturers’ title.
“We’ll be taking it one step at a time,” said Ben Sulayem, partnered again in the Ford Focus WRC by Jordanian co-driver, Khaled Zakaria. “We could have really done with another day’s practice, because the stages are long and some of them are quite a distance from Damascus.
“But we’re looking forward to the start of a new rally in the championship. I hope it’s a big success because the organisers are working hard to make the right impression.”
Starting from the Ebla Cham Palace in Damascus tomorrow morning, the rally finishes there at 6pm on Friday at the end of an 877-km route containing ten special stages amounting to 253-km.
With Ben Sulayem and the Ford Focus WRC dominating the overall picture, fellow-UAE driver Al Qassimi is looking to clinch his second successive Middle East Group N title in Syria, although he faces opposition over the next two days from his two closest challengers, Qatar’s Hamad Al Sowaidi and Mubarak Al Hajri.
FIA Middle East Championship positions after five rounds
1. M.Ben Sulayem (UAE) 40pts
2. A.Al Qassimi (UAE) 20pts
3. H.Al Sowaidi (QT), A.Tsouloftas (CY) 10pts
5. M.Al Hajri (QT) 6pts
6. Skh J.Al Khalifa (BAH) 4pts
7. M.Abu Samra (HKJ) 3pts
8. F.Bustami (HKJ), A.Al.Sabban (KSA) S.Fadhel (UAE), N.Shanfari (OM),
R.Cremen (AUS) 2pts;
13. M.Saleh (LEB), C.Armeftis (GB) 1pt
Group N Championship:
1. A.Al Qassimi (UAE) 40pts
2. H.Al Sowaidi (QT) 18pts
3. M.Al Hajri (QT) 11pts
4. Skh J.Al Khalifa (BAH), R.Cremen (AUS) 6pts
6. F.Bustami (HKJ) 5pts
7. M.Abu Samra (HKJ), S.Fadhel (UAE), N.Shanfari (OM) 4pts
10. A.Al Sabban (KSA), C.Armeftis (GB) 3pts
12. A.Peratikos (CY), A.Al Kuwari (QT) 2pts
14. R.Oakeley (UAE), A.Wahid Al Haye (QT), A.R.Ghuloom 1pt
1. Ford 40pts; 2. Mitsubishi 27pts – Albawaba.com
Source: Press release by Total Communications, Dubai, UAE issued on behalf of Ford Middle East & North Africa.