Dubai, United Arab Emirates
The Emirates Motorsports Organization (EMSO) has announced an entry list packed with the world’s top drivers and riders for the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, which adds another illustrious chapter to its long running success story next week.
A powerful line-up of 132 competitors from across the globe will gather in the UAE capital for the second round of the new World Rally-Raid Championship, which starts from Yas Marina Circuit on 6th March.
Defending champion Nasser Al Attiyah, early leader in the race to become the first World Rally-Raid champion, is the top seeded driver in a Toyota Hilux as the UAE’s dramatic desert rally becomes one of five elite events making up the series.
Among his biggest rivals in the 38-car assembly is Sebastien Loeb, winner of a record nine World Rally Championship titles, who makes his Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge debut in the Prodrive Hunter which he took to second place behind the Qatari in the opening round, the Dakar Rally.
Stephane Peterhansel chases a record seventh cars victory at the wheel of an Audi RS Q e-tron in the 31st edition of the rally, which promises an action-packed five days of desert rally raid competition at its best among the majestic dunes of the Al Dhafra Region.
“We’re excited to be welcoming the World Rally-Raid Championship to the UAE for the first time,” said Khalid Bin Sulayem, the EMSO’s Newly-elected President. “This marks the start of a new era for cross country rallying, and we look forward to building a strong future for the sport.”
Other leading contenders include Saudi Arabia’s Yazeed Al Rajhi at the wheel of a Toyota, Poland’s Jakub Przygonski in a MINI, Frenchman Mathieu Serradori in a CenturyCR6 and Argentina’s Sebastian Halpern in another Toyota.
The host country’s Yahya Al Helei earns a top ten seeding in his Nissan Pick Up as he extends his remarkable 100% appearance record in his home event. Another Emirati driver, Khalid Aljafla, will be in action in the T3 category in an EVO 3.
The rally’s honours list over four decades is brimming with world bikes champions, including last year’s winner, Austrian star Matthias Walkner who returns to the UAE to defend the title he captured on his KTM in November.
No rider knows the demanding desert landscape of the Al Dhafra region better than Sam Sunderland, who leads the world championship standings and sets off in pursuit of a third victory in the event. In January he made history by clinching a first Dakar win for Gas Gas Factory Racing Team.
Two other previous winners in Abu Dhabi, Australian Toby Price on a KTM and Chile’s Honda rider Pablo Quintanilla, return in search of second victories. Argentinian Kevin Benavides on a KTM and brother Luciano riding a Husqvarna will also be in the mix.
The host country’s best hopes of a victory could lie with Abdulaziz Ahli who defends the quads crown he won so impressively in last year’s event.
The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge takes place under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Ruler’s Representative in Al Dhafra Region.
The rally’s strategic partners are the Ruler’s Representative Court Al Dhafra Region, the UAE Armed Forces, 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.
In recent years, the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge has become an important platform for lightweight rally cars, which form such a big part of the championship. This year sees a 16-vehicle entry of T3 prototypes headed by the CAN-AM Maverick X3 of Chilean Francisco Lopez Contardo and the Overdrive OT3s of Spain’s Cristina Gutierrez and American Seth Quintero.
A competitive T4 category also welcomes the current top three in the World Rally-Raid standings, with American Austin Jones, Lithuania’s Rokas Baciuska and Polish driver Marek Goczal all entering Can-Am Mavericks.
The four-wheel contingent is completed by the mighty trucks, traditionally the backbone for cross country rally teams as fully-equipped support vehicles, and now with their own T5 race category.
The Czech Republic trio of Martin Macik, Tomasek Frantisek and David Svanda aim to increase their series lead over Dutchmen Kees Koolen, Wouter De Graaff and Gijsbert Van Uden, both teams driving an Ivec Powerstar
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