Dubai: After months of preparation, Dubai International Baja is finally under way as the competitors face into the demanding dunes of Dubai.
Rally weekend began today with the pre-event press conference followed by the ceremonial start and the all-new night time prologue at Dubai Festival City.
As the competitors head towards the Leg One in Al Qudra desert on Saturday, all eyes will be on the intriguing battle between established off-road star Nasser Al Attiyah in his new Prodrive Hunter and the 21-year-old tyro from California, Seth Quintero, who has replaced him at Toyota Gazoo Racing.
Far from feeling threatened by the emerging challenge of youth, the 18-time Middle East Rally Champion is energised by the prospect of a battle with Quinetrro and 2021 winner Yazeed Al Rajhi.
“Yazeed is one of the strongest competitors,” said Al Attiyah. “He comes every year and now we have Seth who has taken my place in Toyota GR and I’m so happy to see a new generation (emerging). I am really excited (to be with my new team) and really excited to be here in Dubai to test my new car because it will be tough terrain and not easy. I have a lot of experience of this kind of road and this is the reason we send the car here to have feedback for the next step in Dakar and we are here to win this race.”
2021 winner Yazeed Al Rajhi was quick to acknowledge the support of local government authorities in making the event possible and was looking forward to facing off against Al Attiyah and Quintero among others as he looks to complete his injury blighted season on a high note.
“Thank you to the Dubai Government and Emirate for supporting our sport. Thank you to all the government sectors, the police, the army and all the sponsors for helping.
Acknowleding the role of stars
Sure, our target, me and my team, is to come and fight against competitors who are top drivers at a high level. It won’t be an easy weekend but the important thing is that everybody enjoys it. I hope everything goes well with us and everybody else. That’s the most important thing.”
For his part Quintero was quick to pay tribute to the assistance he had had from teammate Al Rahji and Al Attiyah in fast tracking his development.
“I’m super, super excited to be even sitting next to these guys and they’re in a class of their own. I’ve looked up to them for a very, very long time. The whole time in race and rally these two guys have been kind enough to take me under their wing and show me the ropes which has been amazing and to finally step up with Toyota Gazoo Racing Team and to get my opportunity to race a T1 against these guys is definitely a blessing and I’m definitely looking forward to it.
Dubai's role in Dania Akeel's journey
Dania Akeel, the first ever Saudi woman to compete in international rallying recognised the part Dubai has played in her motorsport odyssey. “It’s really special and an excellent place to improve your skills in the desert.
“My love of racing started here in Dubai in 2019 when I raced in the Ducati Cup at the Dubai Autodrome and after that I was hooked on competing in motorsport. It all started in Dubai on two wheels and on asphalt.”
On the motos, David Megre of Portugal leads the FIM World Cup Bajas standings heading into this final round of the season and is quick to emphasise his vast experience in the battle for event and overall honours.
“I‘m in the front and it’s good for me. I will try to win but I have great competitors. I will do my best. I think the secret is my age! I’m a little bit older and I’ve done a lot of racing in my 20-year career. It’s beautiful here and I hope it’s good for me.”
Al Balooshi enjoys healthy pressure
Flying the flag for the local fans is Mohammed Al Balooshi, one of the Middle East’s top motocross and cross-country riders with a string of titles and likely to challenge this weekend after mechanical issues stymied his 2022 bid.
“It’s very exciting for me, he said. “There is, like, a healthy pressure. I like this kind of pressure because it’s exciting and I’m pumped up to go and in Dubai it’s always full gas. David (Megre) spoke to me last night and asked me about my gearing and I told him. In bikes it’s very tranquil, very easy. In the cars, it’s different.”
Sarah Khuraibet of Kuwait leads the Women World Cup classification with only Dubai round to go and has a special bond with Dubai.
“Dubai was actually my first rally so for me to come back here and hopefully finish on the podium it’s going to be coming full circle almost.
“I’m going to do my best and hopefully bring the title home but, honestly, I’m very proud of where I’ve come from in the last two years to here so I don’t really have the pressure to win. I’m a different person on the bike and off the bike as well. Rallies really teach you a lot of things. It makes you a much more humble person. You learn so much and meet different people along the way.”