The UAE’s Khalid Al Qassimi and Saudi Arabia’s Yazeed Al Rajhi will be battling the odds, and history, when they set off in pursuit of victory on Sunday in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge powered by Nissan.
After Saturday’s ceremonial start at Yas Marina Circuit, the rally begins in earnest with the 261.97km first of five desert stages running through the dunes and sabka plains of the Al Dafrah region in a route totaling 2,006km in length.
Al Qassimi, partnered by Frenchman Xavier Panseri, knows what it is like to win the event, having done so in 2017 as his focus switched from WRC to cross country rallying.
It had been 25 years since another Emirati, Mohammed Mattar, secured victory in the Desert Challenge which has seen Arab drivers find success only six times in its 28 previous editions.
While Ahmed Al Shegawi won the T2 production cars category last year, Al Rajhi is attempting to become the first outright Saudi winner, helped by German co-driver Dirk Von Zitzewitz.
In sharp contrast, Stephane Peterhansel and Cyril Despres are the two favouriters in an event which has brought 15 cars triumphs over the years for French drivers.
Accompanied by wife Andrea, Peterhansel is responsible for five of those victories, plus one in the bikes category, where Despres notched the other five by French riders before also switching from two wheels to four.
If an individual country’s success matters, Honda works team rider Joan Barreda Port could have a strong chance of denying KTM rival Sam Sunderland a second Desert Challenge bikes crown in three years.
Spain has scored 10 previous bikes victories in the event, eight of them by Marc Coma who won five times in a row from 2009, a sequence which might inspire his former KTM team-mate Sunderland as much as Barreda Port.
Looking to impress again in the company of the sport’s top riders is the UAE’s reigning FIM world champion Mohammed Al Balooshi who returns to action in the Desert Challenge looking for a top finish after engine failure prevented him from starting the recent Dubai International Baja.
“We’ve had so many great champions over the years, and I’m proud when I look at the long list of famous drivers and riders who have come here to win,” said Mohammed Ben Sulayem, president of the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE, the rally organisers, and FIA vice president for sport.
“Whether you’re a world-class competitor or an amateur enthusiast competing against the best in the sport, you can’t fail to be impressed by our record. It’s always interesting, as well as difficult, to guess who this year’s winners will be.”
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