With the FIA Middle East Rally Championship moving to Cyprus this weekend for the 2009 Troodos Rally, Lebanonâ€™s Roger Feghali and co-driver Nicola Arena hold the overnight lead in their Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX.
Feghali delivered an assured drive today and enters Sunday with a 5.3 second lead over defending MERC champion Nasser Al-Attiyah of Qatar.
In the build-up to the event, a tense battle had been expected between championship leader Yazeed Al-Rajhi of Saudi Arabia and Al-Attiyah, but Al-Rajhiâ€™s hopes of a strong finish were short-lived when he and French co-driver Matthieu Baumel exited in dramatic fashion on the first stage of the day.
Their Peugeot 207 S2000 landed badly after a jump, left the road and ended up perilously close to a sharp drop. Speaking at the Service Park later, Al-Rajhi said he plans to Superally tomorrow.
While Al-Rajhiâ€™s hopes of scoring high points were quickly dashed in SS1, Al-Attiyahâ€™s claim to be taking a cautious approach certainly didnâ€™t stop him taking the first stage of the day â€“ the 20.53km Agios Nicolaos stage â€“ in 18m.36s.
Al-Attiyah has made this event his own in recent years by taking six consecutive victories and heâ€™s clearly gunning for a 7th. He is competing in a Subaru Impreza N15 2009, alongside co-driver Giovanni Bernacchini of Italy.
From the outset, Feghali showed impressive pace in his Mitsubishi – finishing SS1 15.3 seconds behind Al-Attiyah, but young Cypriot star Nicos Thomas was chasing him hard, just 0.7 seconds behind Feghali in his own Mitsubishi Evo IX.
Misfer Al-Marri, who currently sits in 2nd place in the championship (7 points behind Al-Rajhi and 1 point ahead of Al-Attiyah), could only manage 7th fastest through the stage, 47.2 seconds behind Al-Attiyah.
Lebanonâ€™s Nick Georgiou was marginally quicker, finishing the stage 6th.
Popular Cypriot drivers Paraskevas Paraskeva and Constantinos Tingirides finished the stage 4th and 5th fastest respectively.
Feghali picked up the pace still further in SS2 (the 13.62km Panagia stage), finishing it 4.3 seconds faster than 2nd fastest Thomas. But Al-Attiyah wasnâ€™t giving much ground, charging through the stage just 0.6 seconds behind Thomas. Paraskeva and Georgiou sped through the stage 4th and 5th fastest respectively, with Tingirides and Al-Marri close behind.
A puncture cost Al-Attiyah time in SS3 and the rest of the field were quick to capitalize.Â Thomas sped through the 21.76km Xeropigi/Stavros stage in 23m 37 seconds, with Feghali hard on his heels just 3.9 seconds behind. Georgiou managed 3rd fastest, with Al-Attiyah 4th. Tingirides and Al-Mari came 5th and 6th.
Eight competitors were out of the dayâ€™s competition by first service, including Al-Rajhi.Â Khalid Al-Suwaidi of Qatar was forced to abandon the day through the recurrence of a virus and it is currently unknown if he will choose to continue tomorrow.
Also out were Qatari Abdulaziz Al-Kuwari, and Cypriot drivers Paraskevas Paraskeva, Andreas Philippou, Yiotis Chartoupallos, Chris Armeftis, and George Paphitis.
Al-Attiyah was taking no prisoners as he set the fastest time through SS4 (Agios Nicolaos), with Feghali 8.4 seconds slower. Thomas and Tingirides set 3rd and 4th fastest times, with Georgiou 5th.
Feghali hit back on SS5 (Panagia), taking the stage with a scant 0.5 second margin over Al-Attiyah, with Thomas, Tingrides, and Simos Galatariotis completing the first 5.Â
Nick Georgiou (arrived at SS5 13 minutes late and incurred a time penalty) came in 6th, just ahead of Al-Mari.
The fast time obviously inspired Feghali, as he also took SS6 (Xeropigi-Stavros) – this time with a 8.2s margin over Al-Attiyah. Thomas came through 3rd, with Tingrides 4th and Al-Mari 5th.
Feghaliâ€™s consistent drive earned him a 5.3 second overnight lead over second-placed Al-Attiyah. Nicos Thomas sits 3rd. 42.1 seconds behind the Qatari, with Tingirides and Al-Mari rounding off the top 5.