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Mohammed Ben Sulayem, elected FIA President last December, says the event's longevity is a tribute to UAE’s vision to be a world-class venue for sustainable motorsport. Image Credit: Supplied picture

Abu Dhabi: The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge has a proud history built on consistent government backing which remains the key to a brilliant future that lies ahead, new FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem said on Wednesday.

Speaking in the countdown to the 31st edition running from March 5-10, rally founder Ben Sulayem said the event’s longevity is a tribute to the UAE’s vision to be a world-class venue for sustainable motorsport.

“That’s the bottomline behind the success of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge,” he said. “The UAE government has given enormous support and encouragement over the years, because the plan was always to take the event to the top level and keep it there.”

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“Without this commitment, the rally might have struggled to survive. With it, there’s a considerable legacy to build on, and the event can reach another level as part of the new World Rally-Raid Championship.”

It is part of rally history that during one lunchtime, Ben Sulayem jotted down his original plan to stage the event on the back of a napkin. He launched it in 1991, and took it into Abu Dhabi the following year with a short special stage close to the city’s airport - the first rally action ever seen in the UAE capital.

A black-and-white photograph from the archives of the Emirates Motorsports Organization (EMSO), the rally organisers, shows His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, flagging off the cars.

A year later, the event joined the FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies and in 1995, it began hosting bikes as well as cars and in 1999, it became part of the FIM Cross Country Rallies World Championship.

Now one of five elite events making up the new World Rally-Raid Championship, the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge is entering an exciting new era, as FIA and FIM cross country rallying are unified in a single series for the first time.

Significantly, the rally again enjoys the patronage of Sheikh Hamdan Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Ruler’s Representative in Al Dhafra Region where spectacular desert landscape provides a demanding, breathtaking test for competitors.

Across four decades, the event has set the standard in FIA World Cup and FIM World Championship terms on its course into the inaugural World Rally-Raid series. The benefits are felt by each of the world-class line-up of drivers and riders assembling at Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina Circuit ahead of the official start on March 6.

The rally roars away into the Al Dhafra region’s spectacular desert landscape, with five stages of 264km, 170km, 257km and 217km added to road sections of 519km for an overall length of 1917km.

“That’s what makes them return, year after year,” said Ben Sulayem. “It’s what makes it such a special rally. A rally with a brilliant future.”