Northern Ireland’s Kris Meeke and Norway’s Mads Østberg are the leading entries in a star-quality field announced today by the Qatar Motor and Motorcycle Federation (QMMF) for next week’s Qatar International Rally.
The second round of the 2022 FIA Middle East Rally Championship (MERC) takes place on February 10th-12th and will see the two WRC stars going head-to-head with multiple regional champion and recent Dakar Rally winner Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah and the cream of the region’s other special stage specialists.
Meeke and Østberg will drive a pair of Škoda Fabias, with Meeke teaming up with veteran navigator Chris Patterson and Mads lining up with Austria’s leading female co-driver Ilka Minor.
Qatar’s Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari and Khaled Al-Suwaidi will drive two further Škoda Fabias as part of the QMMF Rally Team. They will team up with their respective co-drivers, Australia’s Dale Moscatt and Portugal’s Hugo Maghalães.
Meeke, 42, will be making his second trip to Qatar, having retired prematurely from his much-vaunted duel with Al-Attiyah last year with radiator issues. The Ulsterman has five WRC rally wins to his name, with successes coming in Argentina in 2015, Portugal and Finland in 2016 and Mexico and Spain in 2017. He also won five rounds of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge (IRC) in 2009 and 2010.
Patterson retired from the FIA World Rally Championship last year, after spending much of the season sitting alongside M-Sport Ford’s Gus Greensmith. The former co-driver for Al-Attiyah has 25 MERC rally wins under his belt in a long and illustrious career that saw him partner Meeke back in the mid-noughties, the highlight being a JWRC win at the Monte-Carlo Rally in 2005.
Østberg, 34, will be competing in the Middle East for the first time. His sole WRC win came in Portugal back in 2012, but the Norwegian has won 65 WRC special stages, the FIA WRC2 Championship in 2020 with PH Sport and finished second last season with the TRT World Rally Team. As a factory driver with Citroën, he also finished as runner-up in the 2019 WRC2 Pro series.
Co-driver Minor was due to sit alongside Oman’s Hamed Al-Wahaibi in Jordan last year, only for the car to be damaged during a pre-event shakedown. She is better known for her numerous international rally adventures alongside Norway’s Henning Solberg, Russia’s Evgeny Novikov and Austria’s Manfred Stohl.
Eight of the 14 machines on the FIA entry are R5 cars entered in the RC2 class. Oman’s Hamed Al-Wahaibi and Abdullah Al-Rawahi will drive a pair of Škodas and former series runner-up Nasser Khalifa Al-Atya wheels out his Ford Fiesta R5. All three were present in Oman last weekend and finished sixth, seventh and third overall.
Five crews will compete for MERC2 honours: Jordan’s Ihab Al-Shorafa claimed the category win in Oman last weekend and he will be joined in Qatar by Issa Abu Jamous. Al-Shorafa’s fellow Jordanian was deprived of the showroom section win by a 10-minute penalty imposed at post-event scrutineering for a documentation violation.
Defending MERC2 champion Meshari Al-Kuwari makes his first appearance of the season in his Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X and Oman’s Zakariya Al-Aamri and Qatar’s Mohammed Al-Attiyah round off the Group N field.
Former MERC3 champion Henry Kahy is the sole entrant in a Can-Am Maverick X3.
“We are delighted to see such a strong entry for the Qatar International Rally and competitors from 15 nations,” said QMMF Executive Director Amro Al-Hamad. “With eight R5 cars running at the front of the field, we have the strongest competition we have seen in the MERC during the modern era. The stages in Qatar are difficult and challenging and are sure to test our visiting drivers and provide a superb spectacle and intense competition.”
Officials at the QMMF have laid on a three-day format that will offer a new seven-kilometre shakedown stage on Thursday, February 10th. This will take place a short distance to the north of the Losail Circuit and close to the Al-Bayt Stadium that will host the opening match of the FIFA World Cup 2022 in November.
Twelve timed special stages will then run through the Qatar deserts on Friday and Saturday (February 11th-12th).
The event will also be based at the Losail Circuit this year. Administration, scrutineering, the service park, parc fermé, the media room and rally HQ will all be located in the premises of LCSC.