MERC UAE drivers set for final Middle East Championship showdown

2004 Dubai International Rally
FIA Middle East Rally Championship, round 8 of 8

For immediate release
Sunday, November 28th, 2004


Veteran Lebanese driver Michel Saleh set for desert battle;
UAE's Sheikh Suhail bin Khalifa Al-Maktoum looks to end comeback season on high note

DUBAI (UAE): Two of the most experienced drivers in the history of Middle East rallying will be aiming for a top finish in the Dubai International Rally for very different reasons. The event is being held on Thursday and Friday under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Ahmed Bin Saeed Al-Maktoum, President of the Dubai Civil Aviation Department.

Michel Saleh is the veteran of the FIA Middle East Championship, having taken the overall title back in the days of the Gulf series in the early 1980s. Over the course of the last 21 years, the Dubai-based businessman has tackled numerous regional events in a variety of tuned Toyotas and, latterly, in a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution 7. He began this season in determined mood, keen to upset the form book and take his first outright international rally win since the Oman Rally in 1993.

But Michel, partnered by Lebanese co-driver Ziad Chehab, has not enjoyed the best of seasons in the Group N category, after years at the wheel of a Group A Toyota Celica GT4. ~I was excited about the new season and the new regulations,~ said Michel. ~I enjoyed many years with the Toyota and had a fantastic career in Group A cars, but changes are often needed in a sport and it was time to move on. The Middle East Championship has been exciting this season and I thought that we would be well in contention for the title.~

Saleh began his challenge in the Bahrain Rally back in March and was delighted to finish the event in second position behind the UAE's Sheikh Khalid Al-Qassimi, who will compete in Dubai this weekend alongside his brother and defending Group N regional champion Sheikh Abdullah Al-Qassimi.

But the Bahrain event's FIA Technical Delegate saw otherwise and Saleh was excluded from the final classification on a turbocharger technicality, losing eight priceless points into the bargain. He managed to overcome overheating problems in Oman to take an excellent second place, but gearbox problems put him out of the Jordan Rally shortly after the start.

Michel finished in the lower reaches of the top 20 in Lebanon and the title dream was over for another year. Dubai's Sheikh Suhail Bin Khalifa Al-Maktoum was one of only a handful of drivers who had the pace to occasionally match Mohammed Ben Sulayem in the 1990s, as a member of the Victory Rally Team. After several years away from the sport, he returned mid-way through the year to take a highly-creditable third overall in the Oman Rally. Suitably enthused by his performance, Suhail extended his programme of events to include Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Dubai, but he has endured mixed fortunes. He won the Dubai Rally in 1990.

Broken engine mountings put him out of the Jordan Rally, but he finished a fine seventh over the specialist asphalt stages in Lebanon. An injury meant he was forced to miss the Syrian event, but he arrives at the start of the Dubai International in confident mood. ~I have been surprised how much I have enjoyed the rallies this year,~ said Suhail.

~The series really is on the up. Group N cars give everyone a level playing field and I am looking forward to a full season in 2005. It would be nice to end this year on a high note with a good result in Dubai.~

UAE drivers have an excellent record on the Dubai International Rally, with 14-times regional champion Ben Sulayem taking a history-making 16 victories in the last 20 years. Also competing from the UAE this weekend are Sadiq Fazal and Mohammed Tamjeed Abdullah in a pair of Mitsubishi Lancers, Dubai-based American dentist Mike Ziegler and Roger Thomas in his venerable Peugeot 205 GTi.

The event is again based at the Al Bustan Rotana Hotel in Dubai and has attracted additional support from GTS Recovery, the Gulf Commercial Group, Space Imaging Middle East, Sky Electronics and AMD.


For further media information:
Neil Perkins, Dubai International Rally Press Officer, NDP Publicity Services, Tel: Dubai mobile + (971 50) 3616881, UK mobile + 44 7831 123153 and e-mail: ndppublicity@compuserve.com. www.ndp-publicity.com (press releases)
and Atala Abousaleh, Dubai International Rally, Arabic Press Officer, Dubai mobile: + (971 50) 6469853, e-mail: wisam_mm@emirates.net.ae

Date issued: 28/11/2004

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