Qatar's Nasser Saleh Al Attiyah and French co-driver Matthieu Baumel dominated the opening leg of the Oman International Rally on Friday.
Driving an Autotek Volkswagen Polo GTI R5, the Qatari won each of the days six gravel special stages on the opening round of the 2020 FIA Middle East Rally Championship (MERC) and reached the night halt with a lead of 2min 07.6sec.
His closest challenger on the day was the Omani driver Omans Abdullah Al Rawahi, who made an impressive start to his first appearance with a powerful Ford Fiesta R5. Al Rawahi and Jordanian navigator Ata Al Hmoud were second best to the experienced defending champion throughout the day and settled into a comfortable second position.
They finished 5min 43.2sec in front of third-placed Qatars Nasser Khalifa Al Attiyah and Italian co-driver Giovanni Bernacchini in the second of the Ford Fiesta R5s.
Meshari Al Thefiri and navigator Derek OBrien looked set to lead MERC 2 at the night halt in a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X, but a time penalty dropped the Kuwaiti driver from third to seventh in the rankings.
The Omani crew of Jarah Al Tauqi and Issa Al Wardi also incurred a time penalty and dropped to seventh behind Omans fourth-placed Zakariya Al Ofi and Abdullah Al Zubair in fifth. Khalid Al Manji and Jassim Al Muqahwi rounded off the MERC finishers on the day.
Fourth-placed Zakariya Al Ofi is the triple defending Oman national rally champion. He said: "The first leg went well for us. We took it easy on the first loop to try and see the terrain and what our competitors were doing. It worked out very well and we finished the day leading Group N. I am happy to be fourth overall. Tomorrow is a new day. The second car in MERC 2 is very close to us in terms of timing. It will be a tough day but I hope we manage it accordingly."
The Lebanese duo of Henry Kahy and Rony Maroun suffered mechanical issues on their koda Fabia on the fast flowing Al Misfah, Saal and Madinat Al Irfan stages in the Al Hajar mountains and the Subaru Impreza STi of Faisal Al Rashdi was also sidelined.
Ghaith Al Qassimi led the Oman National Rally at the end of the day.
The Mitsubishi Lancer driver had an advantage of 6min 23.5sec over Mohammed Al Mazrui with Zakariya Al Amri losing the lead after stopping with mechanical issues on the final stage of the day.
Crews will tackle a further two loops of three gravel stages on Saturday before the ceremonial finish at the Oman Automobile Association in the late afternoon.
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