Saudi gears up for a thriller

Next week's Sharqia Rally in Saudi Arabia could be crucial in determining the eventual winner as Sheikh al Qassimi aims to gain ground.

The 2010 FIA Middle East Rally Championship is shaping up to be one of the most exciting on record. Next week's Sharqia Rally in Saudi Arabia could be crucial in determining the eventual winner of the region's eight-round series. And the UAE's Sheikh Khalid al Qassimi is very much in the running to take the title. The Emirati won the second round of the championship in Kuwait in his Ford Fiesta S2000, but was robbed of a potential victory in Jordan by an alternator belt failure.

That misfortune cost al Qassimi the chance to take the outright championship lead before the Saudi Arabian round and he is lying third in the title race with 10 points after three rounds. The Saudi Arabian Motor Federation (SAMF) have now finalised the route for the three-day Sharqia Rally, which will be staged in the Half Moon Bay area of Al Khobar. The event will be based at the King Fahd sports coastal city and will run between next Tuesday and Thursday under the patronage of HRH Prince Mohammed bin Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, the governor of the Eastern Province and the chairman of the higher committee for the Sharqia Rally, with FIA World Council approval.

Qatar's Nasser Saleh al Attiyah is chasing a sixth regional title in seven years and heads to Saudi Arabia tied for the championship lead with Misfer al Marri, his fellow Qatari. Both drivers have 16 points, with al Attiyah taking a first in Qatar and third in Jordan and al Marri claiming two second places, in Kuwait and Jordan, with his Subaru Impreza. Al Attiyah tackled the recent Jordan Rally in a Skoda Fabia S2000, but appears on the Saudi entry list at the wheel of a Ford Fiesta S2000.

The form driver on the last round was home favourite Yazeed al Rajhi in his Kronos Peugeot 207 S2000. The Saudi failed to score a point on the first two rallies, but set some excellent stage times in Jordan earlier this month to claim his second career MERC win and 10 vital points to kick-start his 2010 title challenge. Al Rajhi won the Sharqia Rally when it was staged for the first time as a candidate round in 2008 and has the experience and the pace to match al Attiyah and al Marri on the sandy stages. "I need to finish and try to beat Nasser and Misfer," admitted al Rajhi. "There are still five rounds to go and it is all to play for."

Qatar's Sheikh Hamed Bin Eid al Thani failed to add to the 10 points he amassed in Qatar and Kuwait, when he failed to finish in Jordan, but the 1993 regional champion will be aiming to bolster his tally before the series takes a four-month summer sabbatical, resuming in Lebanon in mid-September. "We have attracted many of the regional championship runners and a strong contingent from Qatar," said Mishaal al Sudairy, the SAMF president, who has just returned from a trip to Qatar for the MotoGP race at Losail on Sunday. "We will also welcome several dignitaries during the week, including Nasser Khalifa Al-Attiyah, the president of Qatar Motor and Motorcycle Federation."

* With agencies