All eyes on UAE capital as Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge gets set for green light

Sport360 staff 17:42 28/03/2019
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The eyes of the cross country rallying world will be on the UAE capital when the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge Powered by Nissan starts on Saturday.

Held under the patronage of H.H. Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Ruler’s Representative in the Al Dafrah region, the event as ever is being organised by the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE (ATCUAE), the national motor sport authority.

The event forms the second round of the 2019 FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies for cars and buggies and the opening round of this year’s FIM Cross Country Rallies World Championship for bikes and quads.

A powerful line-up of 119 competitors from 34 countries have assembled at Yas Marina Circuit, rally HQ for the 29th edition of the Desert Challenge, which gets under way with a ceremonial 19:30 start on Saturday on the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix circuit.

At the official press conference held on Thursday, Mohammed Ben Sulayem, president of the ATCUAE and FIA vice president for sport, said: “Once more we are indebted to His Highness Sheikh Hamdan, and to the Abu Dhabi government, for their consistent support over the years to put the Desert Challenge on the world stage and continue its development.

“For everyone at the ATCUAE, as well as our sponsors and the volunteers who give up their time each year, this is a proud moment when we welcome competitors, support crews, officials and media from around the world.

Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge presser

“Many return year after year, and together we look forward to adding another chapter to the Desert Challenge success story.”

Al Tareq Al Ameri, CEO of Yas Marina Circuit, added: “Once again we are honoured to be playing a growing role in helping the ATCUAE ensure the rally continues to showcase Abu Dhabi as a world-class sporting destination.

“The Desert Challenge is widely recognised as one of the world’s best international cross country rallies, and Yas Marina Circuit is proud to support the event.”

Czech driver Martin Prokop faces a huge test as he looks to defend his cars title alongside Viktor Chitka.

Among his biggest rivals in the 39-vehicle FIA World Cup line-up are French star Stephane Peterhansel who scored the last of his five cars victories in 2011 and returns with wife Andrea as co-driver.

Heading the seedings list are the top two from this year’s World Cup standings following the first round in Qatar, Saudi Arabia’s Yazeed Alrajhi and Russia’s two-time Desert Challenge winner Vladimir Vasilyev.

Biding for his second Desert Challenge triumph is the UAE’s Khalid Al Qassimi, while Frenchman Cyril Despres, a five-times Desert Challenge bikes winner, is also hoping for success. The host country’s five-car challenge also sees Yahya Al Helei starting his 29th consecutive Desert Challenge.

Yasir Seaidan is one of five Saudi drivers entered. Compatriot Khaled Al Feraihi will be aiming to succeed fellow-countryman Ahmed Al Shegawi as winner of the T2 production cars category. Spain’s Jose-Luis Pena Campo returns to Abu Dhabi seeking a second successive buggies triumph.

Stephane Peterhansel (l) and Cyril Despres will be among the leading contenders for cars glory.

Stephane Peterhansel (l) and Cyril Despres will be among the leading contenders for cars glory.

If he is to secure his second bikes win in three years, KTM’s Sam Sunderland will have to overcome the threat from Argentina’s Kevin Benavides, the top seed on this occasion, as well as his Honda team-mates Joan Barreda Bort of Spain and Chile’s Jose Cornejo.

KTM’s Argentinian rider Luciano Benavides and American Husqvarna rider Andrew Short could also be in the hunt for victory.

With 41 riders contesting the opening round of this year’s FIM Cross-Country Rallies World Championship, Poland’s Rafal Sonik aims for a third quads category, with last year’s winner, Dutchman Kees Koolen, entering the bikes on this occasion.

After heading out from Abu Dhabi on Sunday morning for the first of five demanding desert stages, the rally will be based for four nights at a bivouac close to the Qasr Al-Sarab Desert Resort. The event finishes at 17:00 on Thursday, April 4, back at Yas Marina Circuit.

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