Abu Dhabi: Defending champion Nasser Al Attiyah leads a star-studded line-up, which has 132 competitors in all, for the upcoming edition of Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge which gets under way at the Yas Marina track on March 6.
Al Attiyah, an 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 among the dunes of the Al Dhafra Region.
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-10 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.
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.