Khalid Al Qassimi, whose victory in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge four years ago propelled his rallying career in a new direction, says the event can help attract more young Emirati talent into motor sport in the years ahead.
The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge provided the perfect platform for Al Qassimi’s switch from the World Rally Championship to cross country, and winning his home event in 2017 proved to the UAE star that he could mix it with the best on a new world stage.
“I wanted to try something different, so having the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge to turn to was perfect,” said the Abu Dhabi Racing founder and former FIA Middle East rally champion, who lines up in the 30th anniversary event starting on Saturday alongside Dutch co-driver Wouter Rosegaar in a PH-sport Zephir T3. “Winning it showed me I had what it takes to go to the top level in off road rallying.”
Al Qassimi’s 2017 Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge victory was the first by a UAE driver since Mohammed Mattar in 1992, and led him to FIA World Cup 2WD title. He wants to see new UAE talent on the podium in the future, and backs plans by the Emirates Motorsports Organization (EMSO) to use the rally as an important part of motor sport development.
“There is talent out there, and the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge can help bring more young people into the sport,” he says. “It shows them there’s a chance to compete at world level, just like the Dakar Rally is doing in Saudi Arabia. If we’re smart, we’ll find more drivers.”
As the the cars, buggies, bikes and quads sweep across the dramatic Al Dhafra dunes next week, ADNOC Distribution, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, will play a vital role, with mobile refuelling bases, as well as fixed refuelling stations at the rally bivouac, keeping the rally flowing.
Bader Saeed Al Lamki, CEO, ADNOC Distribution, said: “We are delighted to again support the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, an event that truly showcases the vibrancy and diversity of the UAE’s landscape. Our expertise in providing quality fuel for a wide range of vehicles ensures that the engines are well equipped to handle the challenges faced, as riders battle the elements in this fantastic event.”
ADNOC Distribution also supplies fuelling facilities for the Abu Dhabi Aviation helicopters to provide potentially life-saving aerial Search and Rescue support for the medical crews on permanent standby to be taken to the aid of competitors needing attention.
Mohammed Ben Sulayem, President of the EMSO and FIA Vice President for Sport, said: “We’re very grateful to ADNOC Distribution for being a loyal and vitally important supporter of the rally over the years. Added to the fuel and facilities they deliver throughout the event, we appreciate the genuine enthusiasm they show for each edition of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge.”
No driver starting the penultimate round of this year’s FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies knows the event as well as veteran UAE competitor Yahya Al Helei, who marks his own unique Desert Challenge 30th anniversary.
He maintains his 100% appearance record with Khalid Al Kendi in a Nissan Pick Up, and no-one takes more pride in Al Helei’s incredible run in the event than son Mansour, who started rallying as his father’s co-driver.
Mansour was given his break as a driver when Khalid Al Qassimi launched the Abu Dhabi Racing junior team in 2014, sending a group of young Emiratis into the Middle East Rally Championship, and the Junior World Rally Championship.
The mentor and his protégé were team-mates again at this year’s Dakar Rally, Al Helei finishing inside the top 30 on his first attempt while Al Qassimi grabbed seventh place.
With Mansour starting the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge alongside Abdulla Dakhan in a T4 CAN-AM Maverick, the EMSO hopes to see more young Emiratis following his pathway.
That’s a sentiment shared by top Emirati rider Mohammed Al Balooshi, the multiple Arab moto cross champion who runs his own academy in Dubai and in 2018 became the first winner of the FIM Bajas World Cup title from the GCC region.
The KTM rider enters another Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge a week after seeing his bid for a second World Cup crown reduced by mechanical problems in Portugal to fourth place in the standings.
“This is my home event, and I love what it has done for my development as a rider, and the chance it gives to young Arabs to test themselves against the best in the world,” said Al Balooshi.
Among the young Emiratis relishing such an opportunity this time is Yamaha quad rider Abdulaziz Ahli, who takes on six-times FIM World Cup quads champion Rafal Sonik as the Pole seeks his third Desert Challenge crown.
The 30th Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge takes place under the patronage of HH Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Ruler’s Representative in Al Dhafra Region. The rally is supported by the Ruler’s Representative Court Al Dhafra Region, the UAE Armed Forces, Abu Dhabi Aviation, National Ambulance, Abu Dhabi Police, ADNOC Distribution, Yas Island, Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi Municipality, Al Dhafra Region Municipality, Al-Ain Water and Tadweer.