ORT blends experience and youth
Veteran Hamed al Wahaibi and talented Abdullah Rawahi to spearhead Oman’s challenge; Oman Rally Team (ORT) to compete with two cars in the Jordan Rally, starting on Friday
2021 FIA MERC: Round Two
He wasn't even born when Oman's Hamed al Wahaibi was taking the regional rallying circuit by storm in late nineties. And come this Friday, Abdullah al Rawahi, now, 24, will join Wahaibi, 53, as they constitute a two-car Oman Rally Team (ORT) to spearhead the sultanate's challenge at the Jordan Rally, the second round of the 2021 FIA Middle East Rally Championship (MERC).
The two drivers demonstrate a perfect blend of experience and youth and will be among the 13 teams from eight nations at the two-day rally, which begins on Friday.
For Wahaibi, it will mark a return to international rallying after a long gap of nine years.
But the veteran campaigner, along with his woman co-driver Ilka Minor of Austria, have been preparing diligently for the rally, even travelling early to Jordan to train for the past few weeks.
Rawahi will team up with his trusted navigator, Ata al Hmoud of Jordan, as the two ORT teams tackle the demanding gravel special stages in the Dead Sea and Mount Nebo areas of Jordan on Friday and Saturday.
Wahaibi used to be a household name in Oman in nineties and was considered to be one of the fastest drivers in the Middle East during his heydays in the late 1990s. He had won numerous special stages and competed in more than 35 rallies including the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC).
However, his last competition was the regional rally - 2011 Dubai International Rally - in a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X, when he finished fourth.
Wahaibi did compete in two events in Oman in 2012 in his WMS-built Toyota Yaris as part of a youth development programme with Ulster navigator Allan Harryman and ran a Mitsubishi on three national rallies in Oman, winning all three.
Prior to his departure to Jordan, Wahaibi has been testing on gravel stages in Oman to regain the pace and rhythm he showed for many years.
The 46 year old Ilka is one of the top female rally co-drivers in the world and has guided an impressive list of drivers, including Henning Solberg, Manfred Stohl and Evgeny Novikov. This year she has already finished 26th and 21st overall in the Monte-Carlo and Croatian rallies with Johannes Keferböck.
Wahaibi will drive a Motortune-run Škoda Fabia 1.6 with logistical support from Asyad Express, Wahaibi Motor Sports (WMS), Sandan Oman and Pirelli.
Ahead of the Jordan Rally, Wahaibi said, “At this stage, I am not here to win against Nasser (Saleh al Attiyah). He’s in a car every week and has been there for so long. He knows the stages so well. I am here aiming to gain as much experience as possible. My year is next year. That’s the plan.
“I’ve come out of retirement with a different mind-set. Now I am really enjoying the time in the car. It feels great to be back behind the wheel. I realise I have been out of touch for the last nine years and it will take some time for me to get back in the groove. I am proud to represent Oman on my return.”
Wahaibi first competed in a WRC event in the UK in 1997 and finished as the runner-up in the 1999 Production WRC behind Gustavo Trelles of Uruguay. He last competed in the WRC in Japan in 2005.
He has yet to win a round of the MERC, but came close to winning the Jordan Rally in 2004, before a engine failure handed the win to local driver Amjad Farrah on the final super special stage. Wahaibi’s best finishes to date in the MERC were as runner-up in Oman in 1998 and third overall in Abu Dhabi, Jordan and Dubai in 1997.
With Hamed around it has helped: Rawahi
Wahaibi's ORT teammate, Rawahi, is one of the most improved drivers in regional rallying and can call upon the experience of local navigator Ata al-Hmoud, himself a winner of the inaugural Jordan Baja on a motorcycle.
Last season's championship runner-up behind Attiyah, the talented Rawahi graduated from a Subaru Impreza in the MERC2 category to driving an M-Sport-built Ford Fiesta R5 prepared by Motortune.
During the pandemic-hit season last year, he finished second and tenth on rounds of the MERC in Oman and Cyprus and reverted to the Subaru to win the opening round of the Jordan National Championship.
A broken steering arm and exhaust sensor issues halted his challenge for honours at the opening round of the 2021 series in Qatar at the end of January. But Rawahi carried out over 150km of testing in Oman before his home event was postponed until December because of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
“I want to continue learning and getting ready for 2022,” said Rawahi. “I also want to compete in some European rallies to further my experience. I am optimistic for a good Jordan Rally and have increased my physical training in preparation for the longer stages. Having Hamed [al Wahaibi] around me is a plus point and I feel more confident. His support has definitely helped me a lot.”
Rawahi’s rallying programme is supported by Sohar International, Al Manar Financial Investments, Khimji Ramdas Group, WMS and Motul.
This year’s Jordan Rally features ten gravel stages in the Dead Sea and Mount Nebo areas, which hosted the FIA WRC in 2008, 2010 and 2011.
There are two passes through the Syagha, new Adasiyah and Baptism Site specials on Friday and runs through the daunting and longer Jordan River and Joufeh stages on Saturday.