Emirati rider Mohammed Al Balooshi is looking forward to mixing it with the best in the world again in next week’s Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, which will confirm a new bikes champion in the event.
Multiple Arab motocross champion Al Balooshi enters the opening round of this year’s FIM Cross Country Rallies World Championship looking to better his sixth-place finishes for the last two years and secure his first special stage win in the event.
He faces a tough test when the 26th Desert Challenge gets under way on Saturday, with the three riders seeded ahead of him all looking to step into the role filled by Spain’s Marc Coma who dominated cross country rallying up to his retirement last year.
Dubai-based Sam Sunderland, Chilean star Pablo Quintanilla and Australia’s Toby Price, the 2016 Dakar Rally winner, each have their sights on the Desert Challenge crown won for the eighth time last year by six-times FIM world champion Coma.
“Over the years the bikes winner has included riders like Heinz Kinigadner, Stephane Peterhansel, Cyril Despres, Marc Coma and Paulo Goncalves, all of them world champions, so we’ve always attracted the best,” said ATCUAE president Mohammed Ben Sulayem, the Desert Challenge founder.
“We’re guaranteed a first-time bikes winner this year, and whoever it is will have to work very hard because this is a demanding test for man and machine.”
Undaunted by the examination ahead, Al Balooshi says: “I’m looking forward to giving it 100 per cent, and I definitely want to do better than last year. I’m in much better condition this time and I’m looking for my first stage win in the Desert Challenge.
“I’ve had three stage wins in Egypt (Pharaon’s Rally) but none in my home event yet and I want to put that right. I’ll be looking to build up from the first stage and attack when I have the possibility.”
Sunderland, runner up to the Coma in the UAE 12 months ago, starts as top seed this time in a line-up of 42 riders and will be aiming for a flying start to the world championship in which he also finished second last year.
Quintanilla, third in last year’s Desert Challenge, finished fifth in the 2015 world championship, one place ahead of Al Balooshi, and in January underlined his quality with third place in the Dakar Rally.
Price’s victory in his Dakar debut two months ago came as no great surprise, and the dashing Aussie is aiming for a first-time triumph in the Desert Challenge, which has been hosting the world’s top riders since a bikes category was added to the cars class in 1995.
The 26th Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge is also the second round of the 2016 FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies for cars.
The Desert Challenge gets under way with a super special spectator stage at Al Forsan International Sports Resort in Abu Dhabi on April 2, before heading out into the Rub Al Khali for five days of spectacular desert stages.
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