THE final round of the 2012 Intercontinental Rally Challenge (IRC) and penultimate round of this year’s FIA Middle East Rally Championship (MERC) saw Qatar’s Nasser al Attiyah, the winner of the 2010 Cyprus Rally take the overall event lead at lunchtime on Day 1 in his Ford Fiesta RRC.
Defending IRC champion Andreas Mikkelsen took the early event lead last night in his Skoda Fabia S2000, winning the thrilling Super Special Stage in downtown Pafos which got the event underway in dramatic style.
A confident drive by the Norwegian saw him set a winning time of just 2m 48.6s on the all-tarmac LTV Super Special Stage - 4.4s faster than the Subaru Impreza of 2nd placed Jarkko Nikara of Finland.
Attiyah was next fastest through the stage, scoring the same time as Toshi Arai in his Subaru Impreza. Both drivers finished the stage 5.7s behind Mikkelsen.
However, the situation changed this morning.
Puncture woes slowed Mikkelsen on the first stage of Day 1, losing a massive 1m 59.4s to Attiyah who charged through the stage at the head of the field in 20:43.4
The Qatari’s performance was more than enough to see him take the overall event lead, with Saudi Arabia’s Yazeed Al-Rajhi second, 21.3s behind overall.
The drama continued in SS2 with Austria’s Andreas Aigner, one of the main contenders for the IRC Production Cup, stopping in the stage with brake failure on his Subaru.
Mikkelsen’s delay dropped him to 8th overall but the Norwegian fought back hard on SS3 (Salamiou 57% tarmac), sprinting through the mixed surface stage in 8:38.0, 1.4 seconds faster than Attiyah.
SS3 proved disastrous for 2nd-placed overall Al-Rajhi, who crashed out in his Ford Fiesta S2000. By the end of SS3, Al-Attiyah continued to lead the event overall, with first-time Cyprus entrant Sepp Wiegand of Germany 2nd in his Skoda Fabia S2000.
SS4 (Panayia) 100% gravel was the longest of the morning stages and despite reports of ongoing suspension problems, Mikkelsen powered through in an impressive 30:03.1
Al-Attiyah, slowed by driveshaft and alternator issues, lost ground but still making it through the stage a creditable 18.7seconds behind the Norwegian.
Attiyah’s battling drive was enough to see him head into service with an overall event lead of 1:33.6 over Mikkelsen, who was helped into 2nd place by a costly Wiegand spin on SS4.
In terms of the MERC, Attiyah (currently joint second in the Championship with 43 points) leads the way, with championship leader Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari of Qatar (who holds 52 points and is competing here this weekend with a MINI JCW) currently sitting 5th overall, 2m:48.7s behind Al- Attiyah.
Last night’s scintillating super special, an impressive array of national, regional and international drivers showed terrific pace, flying through the narrow streets of Pafos at breakneck speed.
Mikkelsen showed winning form, despite having already effectively secured the 2012 IRC title. But fans can be sure that Attiyah will keep the pressure on, calling upon all his Cyprus experience to take maximum points in his quest to secure the 2012 FIA Middle East Championship title.