Pierre-Louis Loubet and Loris Pascaud delivered a masterclass performance on their desert debut and overcame late damper issues and a couple of time penalties for contact with stage surround fencing to secure a memorable victory at the Qatar International Rally on Saturday.
Norway’s Mads Østberg and his Swedish co-driver Patrik Barth delivered a late charge over the afternoon loop of three short stages but missed out on the win by just 4.6 seconds.
Loubet became only the second non-Arab driver since Björn Waldegård in 1986 (Vojtĕch Štajf – 2018) to win the event outright. Sports Racing Technologies (SRT) duly earned a 1-2 finish with their Škoda Fabia RS Rally2s.
Loubet said: “We can be very pleased with what we have done. It has been a great time, a great rally and I really enjoyed it. Thanks to everybody. We had a damper issue and we are happy to be at the end. It has been tough and very demanding.”
Østberg won nine of the 13 special stages. He added: “We had to do the afternoon with a completely different setting of the car. It was really hard. Pierre (Loubet) had a problem as well. It was dramatic for both of us. We had a good afternoon and we pushed as much as we could. It was another very enjoyable weekend.”
Abdullah Al-Rawahi and his Jordanian co-driver Ata Al-Hmoud proved that winning last year’s regional title was no fluke and they climbed from fifth to the bottom step of the podium in an Autotek-run Škoda, the Omani picking up valuable MERC points into the bargain.
Al-Rawahi said: “This result is good for the championship and good points. Today was fantastic. We did some small mistakes yesterday but we managed to get back from fifth to third. We pushed hard. It is a good result. The team worked really hard to give me a better car today and it worked.”
The result meant that no Qatari crew featured on the podium on their home event for the first time since the mid-1990s.
QMMF-backed Qatari Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari and Irish co-driver James Fulton slipped back from third to finish fourth in their Sarrazin-supplied Volkswagen Polo GTi. Former event winner Nasser Khalifa Al-Atya and Lebanon’s Ziad Chehab were a distant fifth in their Motortune Ford Fiesta MkII.
An overnight 30-minute time penalty obliterated Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah’s chance of winning his home event for an 18th time but the Qatari and his co-driver Giovanni Bernacchini pushed hard to climb through the tail end of the field. Nasser made it as far as ninth overall but the finish in Lusail Boulevard was a bridge too far and the winner of three stages broke a damper and retired on the last stage to cap a miserable weekend.
Al-Attiyah said: “I was really disappointed with the decision (time penalty). It was completely wrong. We couldn’t really stop in the middle of the highway otherwise someone could hit you. We decided to move. I am really disappointed. It is not a professional way. We tried to make some good points. I did my best to jump at least two or three positions and to have a good time.”
The Jordanian crew of Shaker Jweihan and Mustafa Juma completely dominated the MERC2 category in their Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X. They finished sixth overall and 9min 04.5sec ahead of their nearest production class rivals, Shadi Shaban and Samer Issa.
Husam Salim and Nancy Al-Majali came home in eighth and third in MERC2 and Qatar’s Rashid Al-Muhannadi teamed up with Omani Taya Al-Zadjali to finish ninth. The Jordanian duo of Ihab Al-Shorafa and Yousef Juma rounded off the top 10.
After Khalid Al-Muhannadi withdrew with broken front suspension on his Polaris and Stefano Marrini (Can-Am) stopped for a time in SS12, Filippo Epis (Yamaha) pressed on to snatch victory in the T4 category from his Italian rival. He finished 11th overall.
Emirati-based Indian Saneem Payyaakkal and his co-driver Musa Sherif have registered for the MERC and are competing in the new MERC4 category for two-wheel drive machines in their Ford Fiesta Rally4. They finished 14th, one place ahead of the QMMF-backed Khalid Al-Suwaidi and Ross Whittock, who had retired with electrical issues early on Friday and were too far back to mount a serious challenge on Saturday.
Saturday – as it happened
Loubet headed into the opening stage to the northwest of Al-Khor with a 22.7-second lead over Østberg after Al-Attiyah had incurred his 30-minute time penalty and plummeted down to 18th and out of contention on Friday evening. Al-Kuwari was 39.6 seconds adrift in third.
Al-Attiyah was permitted to start the first stage from sixth on the road as he aimed to amass as many MERC points as he could. The only non-starters were Kuwait’s Jassim Al-Muqahwi, who had succumbed to differential woes on Friday, and Oman’s Zakariya Al-Aamri, who failed to leave the service park. Lebanon’s Ahmad Khaled stopped on the road section to the opening stage.
Loubet laid down the gauntlet with a time of 8min 50.5sec but Østberg was in no mood to take any prisoners and the Norwegian shaved 2.8 seconds off the Frenchman’s overall advantage. Al-Rawahi managed to beat Al-Kuwari by 10 seconds and reduced the Qatari’s grip on third to 21.4 seconds. With the sole aim of driving as fast as possible to make up as much ground as he could, Al-Attiyah won the stage by 1.6 seconds.
Loubet was then penalised a further five seconds by rally officials for brushing the stage fencing and his lead was down to 14.9 seconds. T4 runner Khalid Al-Muhannadi stopped his Polaris in the stage with broken front-right suspension.
A blast through the 15.93km of the Ras Laffan stage was next on the agenda. Loubet responded with his first stage win of the campaign and beat Østberg by 9.9 seconds to extend his advantage to 24.8 seconds, although the Norwegian had sustained a broken damper. Al-Rawahi continued to eat into Al-Kuwari’s hold on third place and the Omani whittled that lead down to 13.5 seconds. Al-Attiyah was second fastest.
Al-Thakhira (13.48km) was the last stage of a rapid-fire morning loop. Loubet stayed clear of trouble to lead the event after the morning’s loop. Østberg took a wrong route from the stage finish but it mattered not because the rear damper issues had cost him even more time and he trailed Loubet by 41 seconds before the Frenchman was penalised 10 seconds for another brush with the fencing. Al-Rawahi continued to eat into Al-Kuwari’s hold on third place and Al-Attiyah was fastest again. Issa Abu Jamous stopped in the stage, as Jweihan romped clear of Shaban in MERC2.
Loubet said: “It was a good morning for us. We can be pleased with what we have done. Let’s hope it can continue. Now we need to be clever and do the same.”
Østberg added: “We have a broken rear damper quite early on the second stage. We had to drive slowly. This was a shame because we had a good rhythm today. We feel that something happened on the rear damper and we checked it and it’s broken. With these short stages and also a bit of lack of confidence with the car, we know the stages quiet well. We did them last year. I was a bit surprised that we damaged the car. This time it’s on the wrong side for us. We have to fix the car and never give up. We came back from two minutes yesterday so everything is possible. We have to try again and cross fingers…”
The afternoon loop began with a re-run of Al-Khor. Østberg had three short stages to try and squeeze 31 seconds out of Loubet and gain a first win in Qatar at his third attempt. Loubet was 2.3 seconds quicker than his morning’s run but he dropped 9.7 seconds to his determined rival, who benefitted from a replaced rear damper and reduced the lead to 21.3 seconds.
Al-Rawahi delivered a stunning time that eclipsed the one set by Loubet and it was enough for last year’s joint regional champion to displace Al-Kuwari and move into third place. Al-Attiyah was fourth quickest. T4 leader Marrini stopped his Can-Am for a short time in the stage and lost the lead to rival Epis.
The Ras Laffan stage was where Østberg had broken a rear damper in the morning but the Norwegian needed to push as hard as ever on the second pass. Loubet was 1.5 seconds slower than his morning’s pass that had won the stage and he haemorrhaged another eight seconds to stage winner Østberg. He headed to the final Al-Thakhira stage with a lead of 13.3 seconds. Al-Rawahi strengthened his grip on third place.
Could Loubet hang on to seal a memorable win? He clocked a time of 7min 04.9sec and it was sufficient to fend off a charging Østberg, who was only able to beat the Frenchman by 8.7 and missed out on the win by just 4.6 seconds. Al-Rawahi and Al-Kuwari held on to seal third and fourth but Al-Attiyah’s charge through the field ended prematurely with a broken damper on his Volkswagen.
2024 Qatar International Rally – positions after SS13 (unofficial @16.10hrs):
- Pierre-Louis Loubet (FRA)/Loris Pascaud (FRA) Škoda Fabia RS 1hr 46min 37.9sec
- Mads Østberg (NOR)/Patrik Barth (SWE) Škoda Fabia RS 1hr 46min 42.5sec
- Abdullah Al-Rawahi (OMN)/Ata Al-Hmoud (JOR) Škoda Fabia Evo 1hr 48min 18.5sec
- Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari (QAT)/James Fulton (IRL) Volkswagen Polo GTI 1hr 48min 50.2sec
- Nasser Khalifa Al-Atya (QAT)/Ziad Chehab (LEB) Ford Fiesta Mk II 2hr 01min 12.4sec
- Shaker Jweihan (JOR)/Mustafa Juma (JOR) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X 2hr 06min 56.0sec
- Shadi Shaban (JOR)/Samer Issa (JOR) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX 2hr 16min 00.5sec
- Husam Salim (JOR)/Nancy Al-Majali (JOR) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X 2hr 16min 11.6sec
- Rashid Al-Muhannadi (QAT)/Taha Al-Zadjali (OMN) Subaru WRX-STI 2hr 20min 59.0sec
- Ihab Al-Shurafa (JOR)/Yousef Juma (JOR) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX 2hr 22min 32.9sec
- Filippo Epis (ITA)/Gabriele Zanni (ITA) Yamaha YXZ 1000R (T4) 2hr 22min 36.0sec*
- Fabid Ahmer (IND)/Milen George Cherian (IND) Subaru WRX-STI 2hr 25min 09.5sec
- Stefano Marrini (ITA)/Stefano Tiraboschi (ITA) Can-Am Maverick X3 (T4) 2hr 25min 54.2sec*
- Saneem Payyaakkal (ARE)/Musa Sherif (IND) Ford Fiesta Rally 4 2hr 33min 41.0sec
- Khalid Al-Suwaidi (QAT)/Ross Whittock (GBR) Volkswagen Polo GTI 2hr 36min 59.4sec
- Mohammed Al-Atteya (QAT)/Savvas Laos (CYP) Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X 2hr 48min 01.4sec*
* denotes driver NOT registered for the MERC