UAE’s Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi hopes to learn from last year’s experience and pull off a surprise as the Abu Dhabi Racing chairman lines up in Saturday’s Dakar Rally.
Twelve months after being forced to retire due to technical issues on the penultimate day on his Dakar debut, the Emirati is back on South American territory for another shot of tackling the world’s most notorious cross-country race, which begins in the Peruvian capital of Lima.
Over the next fortnight, competitors will tackle a gruelling terrain of more than 9,000km.
The course includes criss-crossing the Andes and confronting the unique physical demands of Bolivia’s thin air, before crossing the finish line in Cordoba, Argentina on January 20.
Al Qassimi will be behind the Peugeot 3008 DKR Maxi, run by PH Sport alongside co-driver Xavier Panseri, and having broken into the top 10 at one stage last year, the Emirati has three wishes for the 14-stage race.
“I have three wishes for the Dakar. I hope it will be a nice race and no incidents for anyone,” he said. “Secondly, I don’t want to get lost and finally I would like to be the surprise of the Rally. But, I know that on just one stage we can lose more than an hour. I am only the driver, my co-driver Xavier Panseri has less experience but he is calmer and so I am confident.”
As well as tackling the course, the strength of field from the other 110 drivers makes Sheikh Khalid’s task of achieving his best target even more difficult.
Reigning champion Stephane Peterhansel headlines the list with a rich Dakar history.
Searching for his 14th Dakar Rally, the Frenchman has won on four-wheels seven times, including the last two for Peugeot, and scorched to six titles on a motorbike since his event debut in 1988.
The veteran 52-year-old led a podium sweep in the car race for the French manufacturer in 2017 and will be favourite again alongside team-mates Carlos Sainz, a two-time world rally champion and 2010 winner at the Dakar, Cyril Despres and Sebastien Loeb, a nine-time world rally champion.
“We have to get out of Peru well placed. With all the dunes, we must try not to get bogged down. The rally will not be decided before the finish line in Argentina.”
Portuguese football manager Andre Villas-Boas will also take part.
Ex-Chelsea and Porto boss revives a family link with his uncle Pedro Villas-Boas driving in the race in 1982 in a 4×4.
Meanwhile, Dubai-based Sam Sunderland admits being the bikes champion does present itself challenges but says it’s one that will spur him on.
“I am really looking forward to getting started on Saturday,” said the 28-year-old, who became the first Brit to win the crown 12 months ago.
“The 2017 season was good for me, I started off winning the Dakar and then fought for the World Championship right down to the final round in Morocco. I felt good on the bike all year, and the introduction of the new model gives some extra motivation to do well.
“Starting with the number one plate on my bike does add a little pressure, but I am honoured to have the opportunity to do so.”
A total of 166 other riders including last year’s runner-up Matthias Walkner and 2016 champion and team-mate Toby Price all stand in Sunderland’s way. And the Brit believes if he can still be in the mix after the first seven days, it will set him up nicely.
“The first five days of the rally are in the dunes of Peru and I really like that kind of terrain. Hopefully I’ll have a good race and if I can take things fast but steady during that first week I should be in a good position going into Bolivia and then onto the finish in Argentina.”
The annual rally raid has been held in South America since 2009 and the latest edition will run through Peru, Bolivia and Argentina from January 6 to 20.
Having recovered from a knee injury he sustained at the FIM Cross Country Rally World Championship in Qatar last year, Balooshi earned his spot in the 40th edition of the Dakar Rally based on his results in the World Championship over the last couple of years.
He will be competing with the best off-road riders in the world in what’s widely regarded as the toughest race on the planet. A two-week battle of wit and skill will culminate at the finish line in Cordoba, Argentina.
The rally serves up four categories including cars, trucks and quads but Balooshi will feature in the motorcycle class which is regarded as the most challenging.
He made his Dakar Rally bow back in 2012 but this is will be his first appearance in the race since. Having been forced to an early retirement with a broken wrist last time around, he now gets the opportunity see it through to the end.
“The Dakar Rally is unfinished business to me, and I feel super excited about having a second chance at it,” Balooshi said. “This race is beyond extreme, and with the demanding admission process the organisers have in place for the bikes, it’s a privilege to be part of it.”
There’s also a special significance to the Emirati representing UAE at the rally in 2018. In celebration of the 100th birthday anniversary of the nation’s father Sheikh Zayed, Balooshi will be racing under the “Year of Zayed” banner.
“The biggest plus for me this time is to be able to take to these remote lands in South America the colours of the UAE flag and the strength of our country’s father, racing under the “Year of Zayed” hashtag. It’s an honour for me, and I will carry our colours and the name of Sheikh Zayed with great pride,” an excited Balooshi expressed.
A connoisseur of difficulties and with a track record of powerful recoveries, the Emirati rider is not intimidated by the obstacles and treacherous terrain the race serves up.
Two years ago, Balooshi notably gained international recognition when he pushed his 160 kg motorcycle across the Egyptian desert for 5 kilometers to reach a service point after an electrical problem at the Pharaons Rally (World Championship event) almost put him out of the competition.
His sheer strength of character not only allowed him to finish the race in third place, but also earned him respect in the racing community.
“The late and loved Sheikh Zayed was quoted as saying “The real asset of any advanced nation is its people.” I have always believed in his words. Our support to the Emirati Athlete Mohamed Balooshi is the trust Maximus Air has towards his bravery and passion,” said Mohamed Al Qassimi, CEO of Maximus Air.
“I’m happy to have this in collaboration with The Year of Zayed 2018; where the legacy of Sheikh Zayed will be highlighted, preserved by the people of UAE, and acted upon that continues to inspire other countries as well.”
Alongside Maximus Air, Al Ain Water and Sports 2 are the other Emirati companies supporting Balooshi and have gone the extra mile with him to support his initiative of racing under the “Year of Zayed” slogan.
Balooshi is also the first Red Bull athlete in the MENA region and their collaboration is the company’s longest in these parts, spanning over 14 years.
The 40th Dakar Rally will cover a total of 9,000 kilometres and with just over 30 days until the start of the competition, Balooshi’s is on a tight schedule as he trains for the gruelling challenge.
“Rally Racing is very demanding from a physical point of view, but also mentally. We have 500 kms a day of proper racing and, on a bike, without a chassis around your body to protect you if you fall, it’s important to minimize the number of mistakes you make,” Balooshi explains.
“It’s challenging because on a bike you’re alone, riding at 160km per hour through unknown terrain, and you have to keep up with your riding and navigation. The smallest mistake can throw you to the ground and send you home with broken bones. Knowing this, I am prepared to fight and I’m excited about proving that, in the UAE, we are strong competitors and are up for any challenge.”
Portuguese football manager Andre Villas-Boas will drive in the Dakar Rally in January, the organisers announced on Wednesday.
Villas-Boas, who coached Porto, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Zenit St Petersburg and Shanghai SIGP, will drive a Toyota Hilux in the two-week race which starts on January 6 in Lima and criss-crosses the Andes before finishing in Argentina.
Villas-Boas is reviving a family tradition. His uncle Pedro Villas-Boas drove in the race in 1982 in a 4×4.
He is not the first celebrity to take part. French rocker Johnny Hallyday raced in 2002. Prince Albert of Monaco competed twice and his sister Princess Caroline once.
The rally’s website reported that Villas-Boas was an enthusiastic dirt biker as a teenager in Oporto and competed regularly in the Portuguese off-road championships.
Villas-Boas turned 40 in October and said that he had thought of celebrating by riding in the 40th Dakar but then changed his mind after talking to one of the motorbike teams.
“I spoke with my friend Alex Doringer, the manager of the KTM team, who told me that I would still need a full year’s preparation to get there and that it was better to consider doing it with a car,” Villas-Boas told the Dakar Rally website.
“So I got in touch with Team Overdrive and here I am!”
He will be partnered by fellow countryman Ruben Faria, who is also a two-wheel specialist and finished second in the bike category in the 2013 race, which also started in the Peruvian capital.
“When Andre called me to propose that I join him, I had to think about it… for at least five seconds,” Faria said.
“It is a great challenge and I think that we can put in a good Dakar, which means making it to the bivouac every night and not to arrive too late!”