Yazeed Al-Rajhi and Timo Gottschalk clocked a time of 2hr 45min 58sec for the demanding 302km opening stage of the Hail Toyota International Rally 2024 (Saudi Baja) and duly moved into the lead on Friday afternoon.

The varied special meandered its way through the An-Nafud desert from a start at the village of Qina to the northwest of Hail and the Toyota Hilux driver managed to finish 4min 10sec quicker than his Overdrive Racing team-mates Rokas Baciuška and Oriol Vidal. Portugal’s João Ferreira and Filipe Palmeiro were third quickest, a further 1min 57sec adrift, in their X-Raid Mini John Cooper Works Rally Plus. 

Al-Rajhi said: “It was a good day. We did it well. Me and Timo overtake the other cars and then we opened the stage. It was not easy. In some places the navigation was difficult. But everything was going well for us. That’s the most important and we are in the lead.”

Argentina’s Juan Cruz Yacopini guided the third of the Overdrive Toyotas to fourth overall on the three-day event being hosted by the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation (SAMF) as the opening round of the FIA World and Middle East Baja Cups.

Multiple former T3 winner Saleh Al-Saif set a stunning time to top the standings in the Challenger category in his G Rally Team OT3. The Saudi stormed into fifth overall and led the section by 9min 33sec from Santag Racing’s sixth-placed João Dias in his Can-Am Maverick. Prologue winner Meshari Al-Thefiri lost over two hours with damaged suspension arms on his Can-Am and plummeted out of contention for victory.

Dubai-based Alliyah Koloc delivered a strong stage performance in her Red-lined Revo+ and was classified in seventh and second of the drivers registered for the FIA Middle East Baja Cup behind Al-Saif.

The experienced Fernando Alvarez is competing in the SSV category this season with Xavier Panseri in a South Racing Can-Am Maverick XRS Turbo RR and the Spaniard climbed through the field to hold eighth overall and a comfortable cushion over 10th-placed Spaniard Alexander Toril Boquoi in the SSV section.

Alvarez said: “We did a very good job. Xavier was amazing like always. We were fast. Tomorrow is another day but we are happy. We have a good feeling. It’s important to get points here.”

Saudi female driver Dania Akeel started the stage well down the running order after delays on the Prologue but she climbed to ninth place on her first true desert stage in an Overdrive Racing Toyota Hilux.

“It was a lot of fun,” said Dania. “We had nice sand dunes and then open fast track. We had an issue with a broken front-left driveshaft. I think because I had my foot on the throttle in the air! So we lost about 20 to 25 minutes changing that and then we continued.”

Mohammed Al-Balooshi called upon all his experience of the desert to hit the front and win the day’s stage on two wheels on the opening round of the FIM Bajas World Cup. The MX Dubai rider reached the finish of a difficult special 2min 02sec in front of Kuwaiti team-mate Abdullah Al-Shatti to edge into an overall lead of 4min 10sec.

Al-Balooshi said: “It was a very long day and a very technical stage with a lot of navigation. You needed to be on top of your game. For me, the strategy was to start behind Pedro Bianchi but I was surprised that I caught him so soon. From km40, I opened most of the stage from there. I am really happy that me and my team-mate Abdullah Al-Shatti finished first and second. Now I need to recover for tomorrow.”

Saudi Arabian KTM rider Abdulhalim Al-Mogheera was third across the finish line and the Prologue-winning Jordanian Abdullah Abu Aisheh came home in fifth and held fourth overall.

Emirati Hamdan Al-Ali benefitted from starting further down the running order and moved up from 13th to fifth place, while Spaniard Pedro Bianchi Prata was seventh behind the German Open class rider Philip Horlemann.

Haitham Al-Tuwaijri continued to dominate the quad category on his Yamaha Raptor 700. Another stage win catapulted the Saudi into a 21min 38sec lead over Hani Al-Noumesi. Abdulaziz Al-Shayban holds third.

Abdulaziz Al-Yaeesh (Nissan) moved 15min 56sec ahead of closest rival Khaled Al-Shammeri in the unofficial Saudi National Baja standings. Drivers are scoring points towards the four-round Saudi Toyota Rally Championship.

Tomorrow (Saturday), competitors tackle a shorter second stage of 164km that starts at Shut at 07.15hrs (first motorcycle) and precedes the evening’s post-Baja press conference and prize giving ceremony (19.30hrs onwards).

Mohammed Al-Balooshi on a charge at the Hail International Rally

Saleh Al-Saif

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