Muscat: As a teenager, Oman’s Abdullah Al Rawahi was enthralled by the legendary exploits of rally driver Nasser Saleh Al Attiyah of Qatar, a stalwart at regional and global rally events. Al Attiyah stood as an emblem in the world of rallying when Al Rawahi began his rallying career in 2017, marking him as one of his earliest inspirations.
In a stunning turn of events in November 2023, Al Rawahi realised his rallying dream by clinching a historic FIA Middle East Rally Championship (MERC) title, sharing the honour with his childhood hero, Al Attiyah.
This monumental achievement not only secured Oman’s first-ever FIA MERC crown but also carved a new chapter in Oman’s rallying history. Al Rawahi, alongside co-driver Ata Al Hmoud of Jordan, delivered an exceptional season with sensational runs, resulting in unprecedented rally victories—feats unparalleled by any Omani driver in a single season.
The much-anticipated decision on the 2023 FIA Middle East Rally Championship’s (MERC) Drivers’ and Co-drivers’ titles was finalised by the world governing body, FIA, last week. After a dead heat following the final round in Cyprus last month, the FIA proclaimed joint winners—Al Attiyah and co-driver Mathieu Baumel of France alongside Al Rawahi and navigator Ata Al-Hmoud.
The championship awards are slated to be presented at the FIA’s official prize-giving ceremony in Baku, Azerbaijan, on December 8, 2023.
An elated Al Rawahi shared his thoughts with Times of Oman after being declared the MERC joint champions. He said: “This year has been phenomenal. Raising Oman’s flag in this prestigious championship is a moment of immense pride. Our team’s sheer determination, despite a limited budget, resulted in two rally wins and two runner-up finishes out of five rallies. The MERC title and also becoming the youngest winner fills me with immense joy. However, this is just the beginning. Our ambitions are set high, aiming to excel in more significant rallies.”
Expressing hope for increased support following this title win, Al Rawahi aims to venture into the World Rally Championship (WRC) and other prestigious championships, aspiring to conquer bigger rallies like the Rally Raid Championship. He extended gratitude to sponsors and the team for their unwavering support through a season marked by highs and lows.
Acknowledging the shared honour with Al Attiyah, Al Rawahi expressed, “While our aspiration was to claim the championship outright, sharing this title with the legendary Nasser is an extraordinary achievement.”
Al Rawahi attributed his success to his father, Suleiman Al Rawahi, who also serves as the team manager. “Without his support since our early days in go-karting, this wouldn’t have been possible. His unwavering support has brought us a long way,” Al Rawahi added gratefully.
Suleiman Al Rawahi expressed immense pride in Abdullah’s accomplishments, highlighting the team’s dedication and the invaluable partnership with navigator Ata Al Hmoud.
Suleiman said: “Abdullah has proved his credentials at some of the toughest tracks. To be the first Omani to win the MERC title is a result of his hard work and dedication of the team. We hope that the relevant authorities and officials in Oman take note of the historic win and helps in getting more support for Abdullah to take up bigger challenges ahead.”
Tied on 108 points apiece
The tied score of 108 points each between Al Rawahi-Al Hmoud and Al Attiyah-Baumel led to the unprecedented joint declaration of winners by the FIA.
The two crews were tied after five rounds of the championship in Oman, Qatar, Jordan, Lebanon and Cyprus and both teams earned two wins, a pair of second-placed finishes and had one retirement.
The FIA Regional Rally Sporting Regulations stipulate that in the event of such a tie, the FIA itself will decide the winner and decide between any tying drivers and co-drivers, on the basis of whatever considerations it deems appropriate.
A six-man committee consisting of Sheikh Abdullah Al Khalifa (Vice-President for Sport – Middle East), Jarmo Mahonen (President of the Rally Commission), Petter Solberg (Vice-President of the Drivers’ Commission), and former WRC driver and current ERC champion Hayden Paddon, supported by Jérôme Roussel and Andrew Wheatley from the FIA Rally Department, decided to award the titles jointly in the absence of clear regulations and insufficient criteria to decide otherwise.
Suggestions were put to the Rally Commission to amend the 2024 Regional Rally Sporting Regulations to prevent such an occurrence happening again.
The Rally Commission has now approved the option put forward by both Solberg and Paddon, whereby the deciding factor should be the result of the last round of the championship, then the penultimate round and so on. This will be put to the World Motor Sports Council in December.
This is the first time in the history of the MERC where a title has been awarded jointly. Al Rawahi - who secured wins in Oman and Jordan - will collect a first ever Drivers’ Championship.
Al Attiyah won his home rally in Qatar and the final round in Cyprus and has now earned a record-breaking 19 regional MERC titles.
The history-making Qatari will collect an unprecedented three trophies in Baku. The five-time Dakar Rally winner also won the overall drivers’ titles in the 2023 FIA World Rally-Raid Championship (W2RC) and the 2023 FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Bajas.