|Ha´il Saudi Baja: Saudi Arabian Baja got underway on tuesday afternoon.|
The experienced UAE off-road driver Yayha Al-Helai and navigator Khalid Al-Kendi leed a provisional international field of 37 cars across the start podium of the 2010 Saudi Arabian Ha’il Baja at the Maghwat Conference Centre in Ha’il on Tuesday afternoon.
The three-day event in the An-Nafud desert was being organised by the Saudi Arabian Motor Federation (SAMF) and kick-starts the 2010 FIA International Cup for Cross-Country Bajas under the patronage of HRH Prince Saud Bin Abdul Mohsen Bin Abdul Aziz, Governor of Ha’il, President of the Supreme Commission for Ha’il Development and the Head of the Supreme Commission of the Ha’il Rally.
Saudi Arabian rally star Yazeed Al-Rajhi will be hoping to defend the Ha’il Baja title he won at his first attempt with French co-driver Matthieu Baumel in 2009. The Riyadh driver has arranged to drive an ex-factory Mitsubishi Racing Lancer for his second assault at Saudi’s premier off-road event. The petrol-engined Lancer has been prepared by Nicolas Misslin’s JMB Stradale Off Road team and will run under the management of Frenchman Dominique Serieys.
Abdullah Bakhashab returns to competitive action for the first since the 2003 Rally of Lebanon on a one-off drive in a new European-built Toyota FJ Cruiser Proto. The Kingdom’s most successful rally driver has been involved in the event as an organiser and a sponsor in recent years and the new Ha’il Baja challenge marks the first time that the 1995 FIA Middle East rally champion has ever faced Al-Rajhi in active competition.
Pride will be at stake for the Saudi duo, but the event’s record entry has strength in depth. Raed Baker, Ahmed Bin Soughat, Matar Al-Mansoori and Abdullah Al-Herais bolster the UAE contingent and Qatar’s Sheikh Hamed Bin Eid Al-Thani returns to the Kingdom fresh from taking the final podium place in the recent Qatar International Rally. Saudi Arabia’s Saleh Al-Saleh will drive a second Toyota FJ Cruiser as part of Bakhashab’s Toyota Rally Team Saudi Arabia operation.
The UAE-based British trio of Mark Powell, David Mabbs and Ian Barker are relishing their return to Saudi action. Powell achieved a career-best second overall last year with his Honda-engined Buggy and Mabbs will be hoping that his ex-SCORE Toyota FJ Cruiser has reliability this time out after engine problems put him out of the running in 2009.
Dubai-based Barker is one of several drivers from the UAE who reached Ha’il after a tiring 1,800km road trip. Barker was ranked second in the T2 production class last year, but has decided to take part this time in the T1 prototype class with his New Trix Racing Nissan Patrol.
"We have fitted a V8 Corvette engine to the Nissan this time," enthused Barker. "I also have a new co-driver in Ian Rodgers. We have made a lot of changes, especially to the cooling system, since we retired in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge. We hope to be competitive with a reliable car and are looking forward to the rally, because everyone turns out to watch here and the atmosphere is amazing."
The Bakhashab Isuzu Team will also run a pair of diesel-engined Isuzu D-Max cars for Majid Al-Ghamdi and Sami Al-Shammeri. Al-Ghamdi was one of the original Toyota Junior Team members that Abdullah Bakhashab nurtured to maturity in a Toyota Rav-4 programme held in conjunction with the FIA Middle East Rally Championship several years ago. On this occasion Al-Ghamdi will be accompanied by Italian co-driver Nicola Arena, himself better known for regional rallying exploits with Jordan’s Amjad Farrah and Qatar’s Misfer Al-Marri.
Several leading drivers and members of the organising committee attended the official pre-event press conference at the Maghwat Conference Centre on Monday evening.
"It is a great pleasure to welcome all our international visitors and officials to Ha’il once again," enthused Mishaal Al-Sudairy, President of the Saudi Arabian Motor Federation (SAMF). "We have a record entry and our team have made several changes and improvements to the route and the format for this year’s event. The Ha’il Baja continues to grow in popularity and we hope it will go from strength to strength in the coming years. We are pleased that the overseas competitors have been attracted by our incentive package, which is the best in the entire region."
2010/02/18 | 23:50 CET | Editor: MR/HS/PERKINS