The UAE’s Khalid Al Qassimi will start as favourite to land the cars title in next month’s Dubai International Baja powered by Nissan and AW Rostamani, but he faces major opposition in an event drawing a world-class line-up of Middle East and overseas competitors.
Partnered by French co-driver Xavier Panseri in his Peugeot Abu Dhabi Racing Team 3008 DKR, Al Qassimi is the top seeded driver in the second round of the 2019 FIA World Cup for Cross Country Bajas for cars and buggies.
Heading the bikes’ seedings in the event which also forms the opening round of this year’s FIM Bajas World Cup for bikes and quads is Mohammed Al Balooshi, the UAE’s reigning world champion and winner in Dubai last year.
The two top Emirati contenders are among an impressive international assembly of 115 competitors from 25 countries.
Among Al Qassimi’s main challengers will be last year’s winner, Poland’s Jakub Przygonski, this time partnered by German co-driver Timo Gottschalk, and the 2018 runners-up, Russian duo Vladimir Vasilyev and Konstantin Zhiltsov.
Second seed in the 30-car entry and looking to follow on from last year’s Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge triumph, and fourth place in Dubai, is Czech driver Martin Prokop, accompanied by Jan Tomanek.
Other top overseas contenders include Polish driver Bartlomiej Boba and Finland’s Tapio Suominen and Miroslav Zapletal and Marek Sykora.
Among the crews aiming to make their mark for the host country are Al Qassimi’s brother, Abdullah, alongside British co-driver Steve Lancaster, as well as Emiratis Mansoor Al Helei and Khalid Al Kendi.
Mohammed Ben Sulayem, President of the Automobile and Touring Club for the UAE (ATCUAE), the rally organisers and FIA vice president for Sport, said: “We’re delighted with the number and overall quality of entries. The switch from conventional rallying to the Baja format was made to take the sport forward, and this event goes from strength to strength.”
Twelve months ago, Al Qassimi’s hopes of an overall cars victory was dashed by a first leg mechanical failure, although he stormed back to set the fastest time on leg two to underline his credentials, and will be determined to avoid any major problems this time.
Al Balooshi had a tense ride to the bikes title last year as his KTM almost ran out of fuel on the second leg. He faces a big threat again from UAE-based French rider Benjamin Melot, runner-up for the last two years, with Italian rider Manuel Lucchese and UAE-based Richard Brewer looking to build on their fourth and fifth places last year.
Relishing his return to action in Dubai will be Kuwait’s Fahad Al Musallam who will be aiming to complete a hat-trick of quads triumphs.
UAE-based Thomas Bell and Patrick McMurren will be chasing another impressive finish after taking sixth place last year.
Saudi Arabia’s Essa Al Dossari aims to make his mark in Dubai after a second successive Ha’il Nissan International Rally victory on home territory alongside Emirati navigator Ali Hassan Obaid on New Year’s Day.
Also carrying the Saudi flag will be Ibrahim Al Muhanna after claiming the Ha’il T4 title. His two support drivers are fellow Saudis Osama Alsanad and Raid Abutheeb.
Another driver making the quick transition from snow and ice to desert sand after the opening World Cup round will be Oman’s Abdullah Al Zubair who took second place in the T3 Side by Side category in Russia.
Taking place under the patronage of H.H. Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Crown Prince of Dubai, the Dubai International Baja is based at Dubai Autodrome, which will be the venue for the race’s ceremonial start on March 7.
Competitors head out from Dubai Autodrome into the desert on the morning of Friday, March 8, to tackle a dramatic 407km special stage which will be run again the following morning before the event finishes back at the Autodrome at 12:30 the same day.
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