The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge takes its place on a thrilling new world stage for cross country rallying over the next five days, with the cream of the sport’s international talent battling for honours in spectacular fashion.
Taking place under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Ruler’s Representative in Al Dhafra Region, the rally’s 31st edition carries an additional amount of fascination as the second round of the new World Rally-Raid Championship.
“This is an exciting time for the event, and we thank His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan for his continued support as we mark the start of a new era for the rally-raid community,” said Mahir Badri, CEO of the Emirates Motorsports Organization (EMSO), the rally organisers.
“The consistent backing and encouragement we have received from the UAE authorities over the years has allowed us to create a very special rally, now one of the five elite events making up the new world championship, which has great potential to grow.
“The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge is like no other rally raid in the world, with a unique combination of tough, unforgiving desert creating extreme driving conditions, added to top class facilities and infrastructure, and an official HQ at one of the most advanced F1 venues in the world.
“We have faced challenges in staging the event for the second time in four months, but have received exceptional support from the UAE government, strategic partners and sponsors. Without their unconditional and continued commitment, the rally would have struggled to survive over four decades.”
Badri was joined by a line-up of major sponsors and leading competitors for today’s official press conference at Yas Marina Circuit, the rally’s official HQ in the UAE capital.
Saif Al Noaimi, CEO of Yas Marina Circuit, commented: “We are very happy to extend our long-standing partnership with the EMSO, and play our part in guaranteeing that this event continues to showcase Abu Dhabi as a world-class sporting destination.
“The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge is one of the world’s leading international cross country rallies, and Yas Marina Circuit is proud of its role in helping the event to achieve its impressive record of success.”
Following today’s (Saturday) 2km Yas Island Super Special Stage for bikes and quads starting at 2pm, the Abu Desert Challenge heads into the Al Dhafra dunes tomorrow morning for the first of five testing stages, ultimately leading to the finish back at Yas Marina Circuit next Thursday afternoon.
The Ruler’s Representative Court Al Dhafra Region provides extensive logistical support for the staging of the event in some of the world’s most breath-taking areas of desert.
The rally’s other strategic partners are the Ministry of Defence, Abu Dhabi Sports Council, ADNOC Distribution, Al-Futtaim Toyota, Abu Dhabi Police, Yas Marina Circuit, Yas Island, Abu Dhabi Aviation, National Ambulance, Abu Dhabi Municipality, Abu Dhabi Distribution Co., Al Dhafra Region Municipality, Al-Ain Water, Abu Dhabi Sports TV, Civil Defence and the Abu Dhabi Waste Management Center.
Today’s press conference line-up included nine-times World Rally Champion Sebastien Loeb, who makes his Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge debut, defending champion Nasser Al Attiyah, and Stephane Peterhansel, who has won the event six times on four wheels as well as once on two wheels.
Asked this week about his formula for success in the event, Peterhansel said: “There is always a risk of getting stuck in the sand or taking a jump, and crashing the car. If you drive always 100% to the capacity of the car, it’s easy to make a mistake. For me the first priority is to take time to learn the dunes, and when you start to get really confident you go as little bit faster. But always keep on the safe side.”
Other drivers attending the press conference were Emirati Yahya Al Helei, who maintains his 100% appearance record in the rally, Spain’s Cristina Gutierrez, winner of last year’s FIA World Cup T3 title, American defending T4 champion Austin Jones, and Czech Martin Macik one of the leading specialists in the exciting truck category.
The line-up of top riders included Sam Sunderland, who is chasing a third bikes crown in the event, Austria’s defending champion, Mathias Walkner, Chile’s 2018 winner Pablo Quintanilla, American Skyler Howes, a new force in the Husqvarna factory team. and Argentina’s Kevin Benavides.
Also attending the press conference were Botswana’s Ross Branch, who won last year’s first special stage before a crash the next day put him out of the running, and the UAE’s Abdulaziz Ahli, who defends his quads title.