"The car exploded into a ball of fire...We could not go through it...I don't know what happened."
Speaking to Gulf News from Lebanon, 12-time Middle East Rally Champion Mohammed bin Sulayem recounted the horrific experience when his Ford Focus WRC burst into a ball of flame following the tenth and penultimate stage in the second leg of the Rally of Lebanon on Saturday.

The incident which saw bin Sulayem and his co-driver sustaining first and second degree burns respectively, occurred around 6:30pm Beirut time (+3:00 GMT).

When contacted in Lebanon, the ace rallyist appeared to be shaken by the incident but illustrated glimpses of his fiercely competitive spirit. "I am okay," he insisted, "and my face is okay."

Bin Sulayem's Ford Focus WRC, however, was completely destroyed exploding in a ball of fire aided by the intense heat. The badly burnt vehicle is now being subjected to extensive tests by the Ford Middle East Rally Championship team to determine the cause of the fire.

According to a statement prepared by the Ford Merc team, "Bin Sulayem had earlier reported steering problems after completing the tenth stage."

After being treated for first degree burns to his face and neck at Sadiyat Al Maounet Hospital in Jbeil, bin Sulayem later returned to his hotel in Jounieh.

His co-driver Morgan on the other hand was treated for second degree burns to the right side of his face and both hands. Morgan remained in hospital overnight and was kept under observation.

The Ford Merc team clarified through a statement that "a resident doctor at the hospital said that, in both cases, the burns were not serious."

This is not the first time that bin Sulayem has flirted with disaster.

The UAE national champion once sustained a broken neck and vertebrae while going on to win the Dubai Rally in 1988. His recovery and final triumph in that race saw him being nominated for the most courageous sportsman in the world by French TV.

The champion's immediate thoughts after Saturday's horrific experience were naturally with Morgan, his partner of 14 years.

"I am still in Lebanon and I don't want to leave him," he said. "The doctors have, however, said that Ronan is going to be okay."

Recounting the incident which saw him being forced out of yet another rally in Lebanon, bin Sulayem said, "We were driving along when suddenly we saw that the back of the car had caught fire. I screamed to Ronan to jump out which he did despite the searing flames. I managed to jump through the flames after two attempts."

The ace rallyist later went on to put the incident in perspective, saying, "This is always going to be a part of what we do. We live life on the edge...accidents are a part of rallying.

"But what happened on Saturday was a bad experience. Whatever you see in the Hollywood movies turns into reality. The car was gutted."

The Sulayem-Morgan duo, veterans of many battles were preparing for one final fling as a duo in the Rally of Lebanon. The incident brought about a dramatic conclusion to a 14-year partnership, probably recorded as the most successful in international rallying history.

Morgan had already confirmed his retirement after a 26-year career to concentrate on motor sports management. The Irish man had assisted bin Sulayem to 10 of his 12 Middle East titles and 41 of his 53 individual victories in the championship.

While the initial aim was to clinch yet another title en route to the Middle East championship before they parted ways, bin Sulayem insisted that given the circumstances it was probably the ideal finish the duo could have hoped for.

"It ended in the best possible way. Just think of what could have happened. We are alive. We are blessed and very lucky. The loss of metal can be replaced but not the loss of a limb, body parts of a life.

"I will race in another rally and Ronan will probably organise an event. This is not to say that I will forget what happened on Saturday. Every time I remember the incident, I freak."

Bahrain Crown Prince offers plane

There was an outpouring of concern from fans and officials when they learnt of bin Sulayem and Ronan Morgan's near fatal accident.

According to a press officer situated in the Rally Headquarters in Lebanon, "The Automobile and Touring Club for Lebanon (ATCL) was flooded with phone calls from Arab embassies and well wishers as news of the incident emerged.

"They were all saying, 'Please tell us that Mohammed and Ronan are alright," said a press office spokesman.

Given the seriousness of the situation, His Highness Sheikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, Crown Prince of Bahrain and His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Eissa Al Khalifa, Commander of Bahrain's National Guard, were among those who called bin Sulayem personally.

The Bahrain government later put a private jet at the disposal of the Arab world's top driver as well as a fully equipped and staffed medical aircraft on stand-by for his equally successful co-driver Morgan. Bin Sulayem also received a visit from the UAE's Consul-General in Lebanon.