Saudi Arabian driver Yazeed Al-Rajhi and his German co-driver Timo Gottschalk made the perfect start to their quest to win the 2024 FIA World Baja Cup by securing a narrow victory at the Saudi Baja that was organised by the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation (SAMF).
The Overdrive Racing Toyota Hilux driver won the Prologue and the opening stage through the An-Nafud desert but came under pressure from João Ferreira and Filipe Palmeiro on the final morning. The Portuguese duo won the 164km stage in their X-Raid Mini John Cooper Works Rally Plus and were able to overhaul Al-Rajhi’s team-mate Rokas Baciuška and Oriol Vidal and narrowly missed out on the outright victory by just 38 seconds.
Al-Rajhi is now the most successful competitor in the event’s history with seven wins with five different car manufacturers. Gottschalk won the event for the fourth time after partnering Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah to success in 2011 and Al-Rajhi in 2015 and 2016.
Al-Rajhi said: “I am very happy. Very enjoyable rally and my seventh win. It’s always nice to win here. I never expected that I would become a Baja or a cross-country specialist but my first win here opened my eyes to this kind of racing. I enjoy it a lot. Now I am going from the dunes to the Alps for some skiing…and then I will return to racing for the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge.”
“We are happy to open the season with a victory in Hail,” said Gottschalk. “That is especially important for Yazeed. We had strong competition around us. It was not easy. We made a good gap on the first day but we knew it would not be easy to open today. Sometimes we had no lines at all and there were tracks going in all directions. You really had to be awake. We could not go slow. It was a nice rally.”
Ferreira added: “It was a very enjoyable race. I am not a specialist on dunes and in sand. The competition was very good and I gained a lot of experience from being here.” The X-Raid made some changes to the Mini’s set-up overnight and revised suspension settings enabled the Portuguese to push a lot harder on the last stage.
Argentina’s Juan Cruz Yacopini and his Spanish co-driver Daniel Oliveras were second quickest on the last stage and came home in fourth overall. Dubai-based Alliyah Koloc teamed up with Frenchman Sébastien Delaunay and guided her Red-lined Revo+ to seventh and second place amongst the contenders registered for the FIA Middle East Baja Cup.
The fifth quickest time on the final stage enabled Dania Akeel to displace her former Can-Am team-mate Fernando Alvarez and snatch eighth on her first appearance in an Overdrive Racing Toyota Hilux in the Ultimate category. The Saudi and co-driver Stéphane Duplé were third of the FIA Middle East Cup contenders.
Challenger success for Saleh Al-Saif
Saleh Al-Saif is a multiple former winner of the T3 category and has only been beaten once on this event since 2020. The Saudi and his Qatari co-driver Nasser Al-Kuwari overcame an early scare and stormed to victory in the Challenger category in an G Rally Team OT3 and finished fifth overall, 11min 41sec clear of their nearest sixth-placed rival João Dias in the Santag Racing Can-Am Maverick run by South Racing.
Al-Saif was the top finisher in the FIA Middle East Baja Cup and the FIA Middle East Challenger group but Dias topped the standings in the FIA World Baja Cup. His Argentinean South Racing team-mate Diego Martinez finished 10th and second in the FIA World Baja Cup’s Challenger standings. Hamad Al-Harbi was sixth and runner-up in the FIA Middle East Baja Cup.
The X-Raid Yamaha-supported team drivers Pal Lonyai and Annett Quandt finished fourth and fifth in the Challenger category but were not registered for either the FIA World or Middle East Baja Cups.
Fuel pump issues on day one ruined Eduardo Pons’s chance of pushing for Challenger honours in his Taurus T3 Max and he retired
Fernando Alvarez triumphs in SSV
Fernando Alvarez and his French co-driver Xavier Panseri secured ninth overall in their South Racing Can-Am Maverick XRS Turbo RR and topped the SSV category. Spaniard Alexander Toril Boquoi finished second in his Escuderia JMP Racing Can-Am and Qatar’s Ahmed Al-Kuwari was third and first of the registered FIA Middle East Baja Cup contenders in a Quaddy Racing Yamaha.
Alvarez said: “We did well. Xavier did an amazing job and the car was perfect also. We won the category. This is a very nice way to start the World Cup. We are happy about that.”
Uruguay’s Luis Henderson (Polaris) came home fourth and third of the FIA World Baja Cup entrants and Saudi driver Moaaz Al-Hariri (Can-Am) was fifth and second of the drivers registered for the regional Baja cup.
Front drive shaft woes on the opening stage ruined Amerigo Ventura’s chances in his Yamaha. Broken suspension arms put paid to Meshari Al-Thefiri’s challenge after he had won the Prologue in an SRT Can-Am. The Kuwaiti’s consolation was the second quickest time on the last stage and fourth in the FIA Middle East Baja Cup rankings.
Local driver Majed Al-Thunayyan guided his Nissan Patrol to a useful finish and FIA Middle East Baja Cup points in the Stock category for series production cross-country vehicles.
The FIA World Bajas Cup continues in Greece on May 23-25 but FIA Middle East Baja Cup contenders will have to wait until the start of November to take part in their second round in Qatar.
2024 Saudi Baja – final positions:
1. Yazeed Al-Rajhi (SAU)/Timo Gottschalk (DEU) Toyota Hilux Overdrive 4hr 28min 53sec*
2. João Ferreira (PRT)/Filipe Palmeiro (PRT) Mini John Cooper Works Rally Plus 4hr 29min 31sec*
3. Rokas Baciuška (LTU)/Oriol Vidal (ESP) Toyota Hilux Overdrive 4hr 30min 02sec*
4. Juan Cruz Yacopini (ARG)/Daniel Oliveras (ESP) Toyota Hilux Overdrive 4hr 35min 21sec*
5. Saleh Al-Saif (SAU)/Nasser Al-Kuwari (QAT) G Rally Team OT3 4hr 47min 50sec+
6. João Dias (BRA)/João Miranda (PRT) Can-Am Maverick X3 4hr 59min 31sec*
7. Aliyyah Koloc (ARE)/Sébastien Delaunay (FRA) Red-Lined Revo+ 5hr 00min 43sec+
8. Dania Akeel (SAU)/Stéphane Duplé (FRA) Toyota Hilux Overdrive 5hr 08min 02sec+
9. Fernando Alvarez (ESP)/Xavier Panseri (FRA) Can-Am Maverick XRS Turbo RR 5hr 13min 31sec*
10. Diego Martinez (ARG)/Sergio Lafuente (URY) Can-Am Maverick X3 5hr 23min 52sec*
11. Alexander Toril Boquoi (ESP)/Pedro Chaves (ESP) Can-Am Maverick XRS Turbo RR 5hr 28min 14sec*
12. Pal Lonyai (HUN)/Dmytro Tsyro (UKR) Yamaha YXZ 1000R Turbo 5hr 31min 37sec
13. Ahmed Al-Kuwari (QAT)/Manuel Lucchese (ITA) Yamaha YXZ 1000 R SS 5hr 39min 29sec+
14. Annett Quandt (DEU)/Annie Seel (SWE) Yamaha YXZ 1000R Turbo 5hr 39min 44sec
15. Hamad Al-Harbi (SAU)/Aleksei Kuzmich (ARE) Can-Am Maverick X3 5hr 48min 18sec+
16. Luis Henderson (URY)/Bruno Jacomy (ARG) Polaris RZR Pro R 5hr 57min 32sec*
17. Maha Al-Hamali (SAU)/Oriol Mena (ESP) Can-Am Maverick X3 6hr 01min 35sec+
18. Khalid Al-Jafla (ARE)/Andrei Rudnitski (LTU) Can-Am Maverick X3 6hr 19min 29sec*
19. Moaaz Al-Hariri (SAU)/Tariq Al-Rammah (SAU) Can-Am Maverick XRS Turbo RR 6hr 25min 27sec+
20. Atif Al-Zarouni (ARE)/Mohammed Innab (SAU) Yamaha YXZ 1000 R 6hr 26min 12sec+
*denotes registered for FIA World Cup
+ denotes registered for FIA Middle East Cup