The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge commences today and many eyes will be on FIA Cross Country Rally World Cup defending champion, Nasser Al Attiyah, who is considered one of the favourites in the capital this week.
Driving a Toyota Hilux for the first time, the Qatari double Dakar Rally champion will be accompanied by French co-driver Mathieu Baumel in what will be a challenging seven days navigating the sand dunes of the Abu Dhabi desert.
Another Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge is set to get underway. What are your thoughts on this rally?
I’m happy to be back here for the Desert Challenge. This year will be a very different experience for me compared to last year because I’ll be in a Toyota Hilux. It will be the first time for me to drive this car so I’m hoping for success with this new project.
You haven’t won this rally since 2008, is there anything that makes it particularly challenging for you?
Last year I won but unfortunately I was disqualified. For me – I will be (one of very few drivers) in the Toyota. Most of the drivers have opted for the Mini but I felt like I wanted a change, I always like to do something a bit different than the others. So it’s a new challenge for me and I hope it goes well.
The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge is one of the strongest rallies in the world. The difficulty of this rally is that it is all about sand dunes and that is tough for drivers who come here from abroad. But for me, I always say that one should not worry about a son of the desert, like myself, in a rally like this.
I’ll do my best to record the best result. Last year we won the FIA Cross Country Rally World Cup, the Dakar Rally, the WRC-2 and the Middle East Rally Championship which meant I became the first driver to ever win four major championships in the same season. So that was huge and it earned the Arab driver lots of respect from the world’s best drivers and from international media.
What’s it like preparing to compete in a car you’ve never driven before?
For sure it will be very different for me. I had a full day to test the car on Thursday. The good thing is that it’s a tough challenge for us and we’d love to be the first team to ever win the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge in a Toyota.
You were the runner-up at the Dakar Rally this year, having won it twice, what was it like coming so close but falling a bit short in the end?
It was a dream to win this year but unfortunately we had an accident that set us back for a full hour. We fought hard to close the gap and second place was ultimately a great result for us especially that it was the only Mini that was competitive enough against the Peugeot.
And what are your plans for next year’s Dakar Rally?
It will all depend on next month because new regulations will be announced that could be in favour of diesel engines or could be in favour of petrol engines. Based on that, we’ll make our decision regarding which car we’ll be driving in future rallies.
You’re the most decorated Arab in the sport, what’s the secret behind your success?
There are many keys to my success. My goal is always to raise the Arab flag on the international stage. We tend to have this mentality in the Arab world that we can have talent but we can’t achieve results. And I believe we must change this mentality and perception and prove that this region can produce champions. It’s all about hard work. You have to really go after it, sweat and labour to reach your goals. I landed on Wednesday from London and spent the whole day with the mechanics to show them how motivated I am to win this rally.
I feel people can relate to me and I feel incredible support everywhere I go. That also helps me a lot.
Having won almost everything that is to win in this sport, how do you stay motivated?
My motivation can come from one person or from a million people. When you meet a supporter who tells you ‘you did so much for your country or for the Arab world’ it really keeps things in perspective and gives me a push forward.
What about the Middle East Rally Championship, is it still a goal for you this season?
I care deeply about this competition because it is where I got my start and it is what exposed me to the international scene. I have to be a role model for the other drivers here and must respect this championship because it has a long history, it’s one of the oldest competitions in the sport.
You are also an Olympic medallist in shooting, what have your preparations been like for the Rio Games this summer?
I got back from Cyprus 20 days ago where I had training camps for shooting before I went to Kuwait for the rally there. Now I’m in Abu Dhabi for this rally then I’ll return to Qatar to do more shooting training and I’ll be in full preparation mode for the Olympics from then on. It’s very important for me to represent Qatar and the Arab world at the Rio Olympics.
How do you maintain your focus between the two sports, rallying and shooting?
I love this kind of challenge, I love doing different things. I feel each sport helps the other. Shooting helps my concentration in rallying, while rallying gives me the strength and determination to do well as a shooter. I always plan my season ahead to make sure I fit both sports in well and I follow that plan diligently.
Which do you consider your most prized accomplishment, winning an Olympic medal in shooting in London 2012 or winning Dakar?
My biggest dream is to win Olympic gold in shooting, that would be the biggest achievement of my career. Yes, I won Dakar which is one of the toughest rallies in the world but my true dream is the Olympics. Being an Olympic gold medallist really puts your name down in history. You become part of this exclusive club of champions at the Games. It’s special.
Do you feel what you are achieving has had a big impact on sport in Qatar?
We now have an incredible number of shooters in Qatar because they all want to achieve what I have achieved. Even in rallying. And (high jumper) Mutaz Barshim as well, his accomplishments at the Olympics and on the global stage have driven sport tremendously in Qatar. The two bronze medals we got in London have changed the landscape of sport back home and have put Qatar on the world sports map.
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