Arab drivers, riders face major test as powerful overseas force heads for UAE

Dubai, UAE, 10 March, 2014: The Arab world’s top cross country rally drivers and riders face another major test of endurance when they line up alongside a powerful assembly of competitors and machinery from overseas in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge next month.

With entries still arriving daily from around the world, the stage is set for another classic episode when the 24th edition of the dramatic event unfolds among the towering dunes and sabkha plains of the UAE’s Western Region of Al Garbia from April 3-10.

Only four Arab drivers have found victory in the Desert Challenge since it was launched in 1991, and one of them, 2008 Qatari winner Nasser Al Attiyah, is among the pre-event favourites in the cars division, driving one of three potent Minis entered by the X-Raid team.

After dominating this year’s Dakar Rally, the German-based team will be targeting a repeat performance in the UAE, with Vladimir Vasilyev aiming to become the second Russian winner of the event following Leonid Novitskiy’s 2010 victory, and Dutchman Erik Van Loon looking to build on his fourth place last year in the other Mini.

Organised by the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE, the national motor sport authority, the 2014 Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge forms the third round of this year’s FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies for cars, following events in Russia and Italy.

“The entries are still coming in, but already we’re seeing a lot of quality in the cars, bikes and quads categories,” said ATCUAE President Mohammed Ben Sulayem, the FIA Vice President.

“It means we can expect another very competitive Desert Challenge at all levels, and again there’s a great opportunity for our local competitors to test themselves against top drivers and riders from around the world and gain fantastic experience.”

The international force chasing points in the UAE will also include Colombia’s Antonio Marmolejo in a Toyota Hilux, Germany’s Amadeus Matzker in a Land Rover and Kazhakstan’s Andrey Cherednikov in another Toyota.

While overseas drivers with some of the sport’s biggest teams have won 19 of the 23 previous editions of the Desert Challenge, the Gulf countries have produced some outstanding performers over the years.

Among the Arab drivers aiming to make an impact this time will be the UAE’s Mohammed Al Mansoori, Nabil Al Shamsi and Nooh Buhumaid in a trio of Nissans, Saudi Arabia’s Ahmed Al Shegawi, Yasir Seaidan and Ibrahim Muhana, as well as Qatar’s Mohammad Kamal in a Nissan Navarra.

Taking place under the patronage of H.H. Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Ruler's Representative in the Western Region, the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge is the first round of the FIM Cross Country Rallies World Championship for bikes and quads.

The event’s high-profile line-up of strategic partners and supporters includes the Diwan of the Ruler’s Representative for the Western Region, Abu Dhabi Motorsport Management, Nissan, ADNOC, Abu Dhabi Aviation and Qasr Al Sarab Resort by Anantara.

While no Arab or Middle East-based rider has yet won the bikes category since it was introduced in 1995, Dubai’s Sam Sunderland is aiming to change that this time when he makes his debut for the all conquering KTM team in the opening round of this year’s FIM Cross Country Rallies World Championship.

He faces fierce competition, however, and his biggest rivals will include his three team-mates, Spain’s seven-times Desert Challenge winner Marc Coma, fellow countryman Jordi Viladoms and Poland’s Jakub Przygonzki.

Since being introduced nine years ago, the newest Desert Challenge category, for quads, has produced six winners from the Gulf region, five of these from the UAE.

With his victory last year, Qatar’s Mohammed Abu Issa proved he has the ability to take on and beat the best in the world, although he will face more powerful competition from overseas when he defends his title next month. 

The 2014 Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge gets under way on 5 April with a super special spectator stage on Yas Island, which is also the finishing point for the rally on 10 April following five days of spectacular cross country rallying at its best.