Abu Dhabi: Less than two and half months after becoming the first Briton to win the Dakar Rally, Sam Sunderland is now hopeful of winning next week’s Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge.
The event starts at the Al Forsan International Sports Resort on April 1 and runs through the deserts of the Rub Al Khali until April 6.
The Red Bull KTM rider, based in Dubai but originally from Poole, Dorset, in southern England, recovered from a serious injury sustained in Morocco that forced him to miss last year’s Dakar Rally.
But when his teammate fell in Bolivia and broke his femur, and rival side Monster Energy Honda made a costly servicing error, the dice was thrown in Sunderland’s favour this year, enabling him to get his first victory in three attempts in the world’s most gruelling rally.
Life has changed considerably for the 27-year-old, and he comes into next week’s event with confidence, as he looks to kick-start his FIM Cross-Country Rallies World Championship season with a win.
Sunderland has Austria’s Matthias Walkner and France’s Antoine Meo on his team over the twisting sand trails and towering dunes that make the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge so unique, but there’s pressure on their shoulders.
With the exception of 2014 — when the win fell to Honda’s Paolo Gonçalves — KTM has won the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge every year since 2001. The odds are stacked in the team’s favour again this year with the strength of Sunderland, Walkner and Meo.
But Husqvarna would love to stop KTM in their tracks. Pablo Quintanilla relied on consistent finishes to win last year’s FIM world title on his Rockstar Energy 450 Rally and the Chilean starts as the top seed as a result of that title success. He is also part of a two-man team alongside the consistent Frenchman and multiple FIM Motocross and Enduro World Champion Pierre Alexandre Renet.
The Monster Energy Honda Team split its resources at the start of the season and American Ricky Brabec clinched victory in Mexico’s Sonora Rally last weekend against a strong field. Management have given the task of pushing for the Abu Dhabi win to Gonçalves and the Argentinian rider Kevin Benavides, as star rider Joan Barreda Bort recovers from injury.
Twenty-eight motorcycles and 17 quads grace the entry list for the Automobile Touring Club of the UAE’s (ATCUAE) flagship off-road classic, and numerous local riders are in the hunt for success.
“We have a very strong motorcycle club in the UAE and enduro and cross-country rallying are very popular,” said Mohammad Bin Sulayem, rally founder and President of the ATCUAE. “Sam Sunderland’s Dakar win was a major boost for the sport as a whole in the region and has attracted a lot of interest around the world. He has been a supporter of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge for several years, but we have a strong field of factory riders this year and the battle will be fascinating on two wheels.”