Sébastien Loeb, the most successful driver in World Rally Championship history, makes his debut in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge next week.
The nine-time World Rally Champion starts the event in partnership with Belgian co-driver Fabian Lurquin at the wheel of a Bahrain Raid Xtreme Prodrive Hunter in the emerging T1+ category.
Loeb’s status as the most complete rally driver ever adds extra fascination as the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge marks its 30th anniversary from 6-11 November under the patronage of HH Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Ruler’s Representative in Al Dhafra Region.
In WRC terms, the French legend has gained more world titles, rally victories, podium finishes and stage wins, than any other driver. He has also won a RallyCross X Games gold medal, earned a podium finish at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and secured two Dakar Rally podium finishes and 14 stage wins.
As the T1+ category is not officially recognised until next year, Loeb cannot gain outright victory in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge nor score points in the penultimate round of this year’s FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies.
But he faces an intriguing test, with three former winners of the event, Bahrain Raid Xtreme team-mate Nani Roma from Spain, the UAE’s Khalid Al Qassimi in a PH-SPORT Zephir, and Martin Prokop from the Czech Republic in a Ford Raptor RS Cross Country, among the other T1+ contenders.
As the rally unfolds across the remote Al Dhafrah desert dunes, competitor wellbeing is a major priority for the rally organisers, and the Emirates Motorsports Organization’s (EMSO) safety plan for the event involves months of planning and expert co-ordination.
Chief Medical Officer Dr Sean Petherbridge oversees a 17-strong team of doctors and paramedics whose potentially life-saving work during the event is part of a rapid response Search and Rescue operation ensuring no time is lost in the event of accidents.
This depends on vital support from dedicated major rally partners Abu Dhabi Aviation, National Ambulance, and the Abu Dhabi Department of Health.
Three Abu Dhabi Aviation helicopters and crew, and three National Ambulance vehicles and personnel equipped with medical kits, are on permanent standby to deliver aid to injured competitors.
Some will be treated at the scene and may continue in the rally, while others will be evacuated to the rally’s bivouac medical centre or the nearest hospital.
The entire medical team, including 14 overseas members, is licensed by the Abu Dhabi DOH to practice in country in line with the rally’s emphasis on governance, and a commitment to the highest quality all-round support services.
Ahmed Al Hajeri, Chief Executive Officer of National Ambulance, said: “We have a close working partnership with the EMSO, and are very happy to once again play an important role in safeguarding the wellbeing of competitors in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge.
“This helps underline the commitment of National Ambulance to deliver quality emergency care consistent with international standards.”
Mohammed Ben Sulayem, President of the EMSO and FIA Vice President for Sport, said: “The rally has a proud safety record, and the work and dedication of our medical team, who receive crucial support from the Abu Dhabi Department of Health and National Ambulance, is recognised by competitors and admired by rally officials around the world.”
The Desert Challenge 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.
Based at Yas Marina Circuit, the Desert Challenge is also the final round of the FIM Cross-Country Rallies World Championship for bikes.
It begins with a Super Special Stage for bikes at 1.30pm next Saturday before sweeping out into the Al Dhafra region the next morning.
After competitive desert stages of 262km, 333km, 293km, 251km, a final stage of 216km takes the survivors to the finish back at Yas Marina Circuit at 12.30pm on Thursday 11 November.