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Hail Saudi Baja: UAE's Ahmed Bin Soughat sets fastest time.

The 2007 Hail Saudi Baja got underway in the city of Hail on Friday afternoon, marking the first time in history that an international motorsport event has been staged in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Teams headed straight into an opening two-kilometre super special near the start venue. In front of thousands of enthusiastic spectators, the UAE's Ahmed Bin Soughat and Wael Marjan set the unofficial fastest time of 3m 39s in their Nissan Patrol. Saudi Arabia's Prince Khaled Bin Sultan and Lebanese co-driver Joseph Mattar were unofficially a mere second behind in a Mitsubishi Pajero, while Saudi Arabia's Abdullah Al-Marri and Omani co-driver Hamoud Al-Jabry finished third in a second Mitsubishi Pajero.

An international field of 30 cars had been flagged away from the rally start at the Prince Sultan Cultural Centre in Hail by HRH Prince Saud Bin Abdul Mohsen Bin Abdul Aziz, Governor of Hail, President of the Supreme Commission for Hail Development and the Head of the Supreme Commission of the Hail Rally.

Reverse seeing meant that the honour of the first car in history over an international Saudi Arabian rally start ramp fell to backmarkers Bader Mishaal Al Hamazani and Khaled Nafea Al-Hamazani in a Toyota. Numerous television cameras, including crews from CNN, MBC, LBC and Gear One, filmed the dramatic, history-making footage and Saudi television beamed live images around the Arab world. International motorsport had finally arrived in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Among the visitors were former Saudi Arabian rally star Abdullah Bakhashab, the new Head of Kuwait's ASN Sheikh Ahmad Bin Daoud Al-Sabah and the UAE's multiple Middle East rally champion Mohammed Bin Sulayem. Bakhashab, the 1995 FIA Middle East rally champion, is the most famous motorsporting celebrity in Saudi Arabia and tackled rounds of the WRC for several seasons. He spoke at the start in Hail of his delight in seeing top class motorsport in the Kingdom for the first time.

"I am absolutely delighted with the big changes we have had and the birth of this event in Hail," said Bakhashab. "This is a major step forward for us. I would have liked to enter this year myself, but I am a member of the organising committee and it was not possible. The sheer number of sponsors that have come forward to support this event just proves what a golden future the sport has in this country. The finance is available and that is important in top level motorsport. We have the full support of the Government of Hail and I am sure that this is the start of a fantastic future for rallying and cross-country racing in Saudi Arabia."

"This is such a friendly place," enthused Qatar's Sheikh Hamed Bin Eid Al-Thani, who sportingly permitted Saudi driver Mohammed Al-Shammery to drive his Nissan Patrol this weekend. "I thoroughly enjoyed the event last year and the organisers have gone to great lengths to bring it up to an international standard for 2007.

"There are no parts of any stages where you can drive flat out. Last year I was only able to get into third gear in my Nissan Patrol. Most of the stages are winding Bedouin trails. They are narrow and it is not possible to cut, because there are trees and holes. The people of Hail are keen to see this event gain in stature. I am sure the weekend will be a great success."

Lebanese co-driver Joseph Mattar was a visitor to the event last year and was impressed with the changes he has seen in 2007. "This event and the sport in Saudi Arabia are going one way and that is up. These are classic desert stages. Saudi is the biggest automotive market in the region and it is a natural step for the country to build on this."

Over the next two days, teams will tackle a challenging 261.1km selective section on Saturday and a shorter, but no less demanding, 198.60km section on Sunday. In a total route of 875.39km, 461.95km will be competitive before the official podium finish at 17.30hrs on Sunday afternoon.

"This event has doubled in size since last year and I am very proud to have been the first winner," said last year's Hail Baja champion Farhan Abdullah Al-Galeb, who was the last driver over the start ramp. "But that means that it will be impossible to win again this time. My chances are very slim, but I will give it my best."

"I came to this event last year when it ran as a trial and we hope it will run well this year," said FIA Vice-President Derek Ledger. "Saudi Arabia's first involvement will add so much to motorsport. It has been a barrier to the development of the sport in the region, because you have to drive through Saudi Arabia to get to so many places within the Middle East. The encouragement given by the Minister of Sport is a wonderful and exciting development. There is a lot of potential here for many motorsport disciplines."

Tomorrow (Saturday) marks the first and longest of the two sections, with the route through the Nufud desert heading from Jubbah via Bir Al Radefah, Bir Al Sora, Taas Zbeden and Al Ghadeh before finishing close to the start. A refuelling zone is planned at Bir Al Alim.

Top 10 after Super Special stage: unofficial @ 16.00 CET

01 I Bin Soughat (UAE)/Marjan (UAE) I Nissan Patrol I 00:03:39
02 I Bin Sultan (KSA)/Mattar (RL) I Mitsubishi Pajero I 3m 40s
03 I Al-Marri (KSA)/Al-Jabry (OM) Mitsubishi Pajero I 3m 57s
04 I Al-Galeb (KSA)/Al-Qunon (KSA) I Toyota Landcruiser I 4m 02s
05 I Al-Shammari (KSA)/Al-Shammeri (KSA) I Toyota Landcruiser I 4m 04s
06 I Al-Shawi (UAE)/Abdulhaleem Zayed (UAE) I Nissan Patrol I 4m 24s
07 I A;-Qahtani (KSA)/Rijles (SYR) I Land Rover I 4m 30s
08 I Al-Saadi (KSA)/Al-Saadi (KSA) I Toyota Landcruiser I 4m 37s
09 I Al-Rimal (KSA)/Al-Shammeri (KSA) I Nissan Patrol I 4m 42s
09 I Al-Hamazani (KSA)/Al-Hamazani (KSA) I Toyota Landcruiser I 4m 42s

2007/01/11 | 18:18 CET | Editor: MR/Neil Perkins

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