They came, they saw, but once again Nasser Al-Attiyah conquered Qatar.
Some of rallying’s biggest and best names lined up alongside home hero Al-Attiyah in an attempt to slow the Volkswagen Polo driver’s march towards a 17th Qatar International Rally win.
Just as Kris Meeke failed last year, so Andreas Mikkelsen did this week. And Mads Østberg did for the second season in succession. Nasser is the absolute master of his home event and wasted no time putting January’s miserable Middle East Rally Championship opener in Oman to the back of his mind as he moved to the top of the standings with victory on Saturday afternoon.
Desert rallying newcomer Mikkelsen made the most of Thursday night’s asphalt opener to move into the early lead, but once it was sand beneath the wheels of his Škoda, the three-time World Rally Championship event winner’s challenge faded.
Fellow Norwegian Østberg carried the fight all the way to Al-Attiyah, leading the five-time Dakar winner twice before losing out in a final-stage thriller.
Trailing Nasser by 3.1s ahead of the nine-mile Al Waab test, Østberg knew he was going to have to find something special to eclipse his rival on his favorite home stage.
In the end, there was no stopping Al-Attiyah. A stage win for the favorite and a mistake from Østberg added nine seconds to what was a 12.2s win.
“I am quite happy to win. This was an amazing weekend,” said Al-Attiyah. “To win 17 times is not easy. I am really quite proud of this.
“It was a big fight with Mads this week. I had nothing to lose at the start of the last stage; just we go flat out everywhere.”
Østberg enjoyed the battle across two days and admitted he had no answer for the winner’s pace and understanding of the desert stages – even wondering whether Al-Attiyah had been playing with him.
The Škoda-driving runner-up said: “It was a great fight, no doubt. We enjoyed the rally a lot.
“I am starting to wonder if Nasser was just keeping it all under control all the way and did everything when he had to. I think we were able to stress Nasser and that was the only thing we could do. He knows his way around the desert. We are lacking still a bit of experience.
“I wanted to push on the last stage. I knew that this is Nasser’s best stage in the whole of Qatar. I knew that from last year.”
Talking about his final-stage error, Østberg said: “I mixed up the crests and the road disappeared to the left but this was not nine seconds. It was less than that. I have huge respect for Nasser. He is a very good driver and he knows what he is doing here. I am also very happy to be able to fight with him.
“We have led the rally two times and it’s been a very good weekend. I have a few extra notes now and I know what I need to do. I hope to get another shot.”
His third-placed team-mate Mikkelsen admitted he had more to learn.
“I think third place is the most we could have asked for, having never been here before,” he said.
“I was very happy with the performance. We expected everyone to follow a little bit more the road [from] what we heard from the new FIA regulations, but there was still a lot of cutting going on. We just need to adjust our driving but, when we are done with the recce, it’s too late; we have the notes following the road.
“Two stage wins and the one was basically where you could not cut and had to follow the road – that’s where we felt more at home.”
Reigning WRC2 champion Emil Lindholm, Mikkelsen’s other team-mate, finished the 13-stage event fourth.