Interview. Nasser Al-Attiyah. Spirit of competition

Having driven the MINI ALL4 Racing machine that took him to Dakar Rally victory this year, catches up with Qatari sporting legend Nasser Al-Attiyah for a chat about national rallying, the Dakar, Olympic bronze medals, and his thoughts on two-time World Rally Champion Carlos Sainz.

As life achievements go, Nasser Al-Attiyah has a few to choose from. He’s a category winner at the Nürburgring 24 Hours, the reigning Production World Rally Champion, has failed to win the FIA Middle East Rally Championship only twice since 2003, and stands just four rally victories short of the series’ all-time record. And to put Qatar yet further on the competitive map, he remains the only Arab national to take the big prize on the Dakar.

Ask him about these though and you’ll find none are his career highlight. That would be the Olympic bronze medal he won in London in 2012 for skeet shooting.

“This is a life dream that I’ll never forget,” Nasser explains, “and being the first person to grab that title for my country is a huge achievement. My hope is to compete in the Olympic games next year too [in Brazil], which will be my sixth time. I think that might be a record…

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Truth be told, I’d not expected to be sitting in a Bivouac tent just outside Dubai’s Bam Al Shams desert resort discussing Olympic clay pigeon shooting with the reigning Dakar Rally winner. But such is Nasser’s enthusiasm that it’s difficult not to get swept up in the subject (even though, as I freely admit, I know almost nothing about it). Given that I’ve just co-driven the X-Raid Team supported MINI ALL4 Racing rally car with the man, Nasser can tell I’m itching to ask him about this year’s Dakar Rally, an event that despite an early penalty – accrued for speeding between stages – dropping him to seventh early on, he led for all but one stage and won comfortably by more than 35 minutes over former winner Giniel de Villiers.

“The Dakar is one of the hardest rallies in the world. But this year we were smart, took the lead from the beginning and didn’t let ourselves get down when things went wrong. In fact, our penalty was taken for a specific reason: we took a 580kg weight penalty and this meant we started seventh on the second stage rather than first. It’s much easier to chase!”

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The man himself is no stranger to the Dakar podium. Discounting a couple of years in the wilderness – where a dearth of manufacturer drives meant he entered a privately-run Hummer H3 and a Damen Jefferies-built buggy in 2012 and 2013 – Nasser has claimed 22 stage victories and finished in the top three four times since 2010, one of which was his debut event victory aboard the Volkswagen Rally Touareg in 2011. Even despite the ‘ease’ with which victory was taken this year, it’s this result that stands out for Nasser.

“The first time is always special, even more so since I was the first Arabic driver to beat former World Champions and former Dakar winners. I was also the last driver to win the Dakar for Volkswagen before they pulled out, which was very sad but of course they had different goals in mind. Now with MINI, it’s great to get a second victory and the team is so competitive, we’re already looking for the next win in 2016.”

Rarely though does the Dakar go so swimmingly. In 2007, during his first tenure with the BMW Group and the X-Raid team aboard a BMW X5, a one-hour time penalty dropped Nasser from third to sixth. In 2010, victory came agonisingly close only for Volkswagen teammate, and two-time World Rally Champion, Carlos Sainz to take victory just two minutes ahead of the Qatari, the closest ever finish on the Dakar.

“Well Carlos is one of the strongest drivers in the world, and it didn’t help that during the first week I made too many mistakes which cost us nearly 15 minutes. Fortunately the second week went a lot smoother and I clawed back to within a couple of minutes of Carlos. A little longer and I might have beaten him. But second place was still a great result for my first Dakar with Volkswagen, and I still went one better the following year.”

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With victory already in the bag in 2015, Nasser’s sights are now set on overall victory in the FIA Cross-County World Cup, a title he claimed in 2008 alongside co-driver Tina Thörner (who also partnered the late Colin McRae during the former WRC champ’s Dakar pilgrimage in 2004 and 2005). A victory on home turf on the Sealine Cross-Country Rally got the ball rolling, it being his third on the event in four years and his fifth victory from six rally starts across three continents and four different championships. Only the recent Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge – from which Nasser was disqualified post-event for irregular suspension travel – ruined a clean streak.

“Yeah, the rules weren’t really that clear, so that was a very frustrating decision,” Nasser smiles. “Sometimes things can go your way, other times it doesn’t, and I’d probably better not say why. It’s an issue that has been raised with the FIA and we’ll see what happens next, but it hurts our chances in the championship. It’ll be a shame if this is what decides the title at the end of the year.”

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Commotion strikes outside the tent as the ALL4 Racing is fired back into life. That’s Nasser’s cue to zip up his racesuit and climb back behind the wheel. Before he does though, I’m intrigued to hear his thoughts on another potential record – alongside another Olympic campaign and Dakar victory – that could fall his way very soon. With ten FIA Middle East Rally Championship crowns to his name, he’s ‘only’ four behind overall record-holder – and FIA figurehead – Mohammed Bin Sulayem. To Nasser though, their two achievements of a different ilk.

“It’s a really great achievement for Mohammad, and it’s a record that no other Arab driver has come close to matching. But bear in mind he was competing from 1982 to 2002, and that’s a long time. For us, we’ve managed ten titles in 12 years and I’ve still got a few years ahead of me. So anything is possible. I’m very proud of my record though. It sends a message to the world that Arab drivers can compete at the highest level and win. I’m not here just to make up the numbers.”

As a Dakar-winning, WRC-competing, reigning Middle East Rally Champion who has a penchant for Olympic shooting, that’s quite an understatement.

– Shots courtesy of X-Raid

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