Abu Dhabi: The major forces in the new World Rally-Raid Championship are heading for a spectacular battle in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge next month.
With all the teams fighting for the inaugural cars and bikes world titles assembling in the UAE capital, the stage is set for the most eagerly awaited showdown in the event’s 31-year history from March 5-10.
After his opening round victory in last month’s Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia, defending champion Nasser Al Attiyah can expect intense pressure as he aims to keep Toyota Gazoo Racing on course for the drivers and manufacturers world crowns.
Meanwhile, Sam Sunderland, who developed his desert riding skills in the UAE, faces another big test in a world-class line-up as he looks to build on his Dakar bikes triumph for Gasgas Factory Racing.
The Emirates Motorsports Organisation (EMSO), the rally organisers, will announce what is expected to be a bumper final entry list on February 25, and Abu Dhabi Sports Council (ADSC) says the event’s place in the World Rally-Raid Championship represents another step forward in the UAE’s sporting achievements.
“We are pleased to participate in supporting and organising the 31st edition of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge,” said Aref Al Awani, Secretary General of ADSC, which has a long-term partnership with the EMSO to stage and promote the rally.
“We attach great importance to organising international and community sporting events in the Al Dhafra region, and value the role of the rally in shedding light on the features of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi and its desert terrain.”
The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge takes place under the patronage of Sheikh Hamdan Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Ruler’s Representative in Al Dhafra Region.
Al Attiyah’s path to a fourth triumph in the event is under threat from a succession of the world’s top drivers, including Stephane Peterhansel, who is targeting a record seventh cars victory in the event with Team Audi Sport.
Joining the heat of the battle are Saudi Arabia’s Yazeed Al Rajhi (Overdrive Racing), Poland’s Jakub Przygonski and Russian Denis Rotov Denis (X-raid MINI JCW Team) and 2018 winner in Abu Dhabi, Martin Prokop (Benzina Orlen Team).
While Bahrain Raid Xtreme have yet to confirm their driver line-up after Sebastien Loeb’s second-place finish in Dakar, they will certainly add to the intensity of the contest among the dramatic desert landscape of the Al Dhafra region.
Tussle for supremacy
The tussle for supremacy on four wheels will be matched by the strength of competition on two wheels, as Sunderland looks to add to his Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge victories in 2017 and 2019.
Austrian star Matthias Walkner had already clinched the 2021 FIM world title before winning in Abu Dhabi last year, and he returns to the Al Dhafra dunes to spearhead another big assault by Red Bull KTM Factory Racing.
Teammates Toby Price, the 2016 winner in Abu Dhabi, and last year’s Dakar champion Kevin Benavides, are among the other big threats to Sunderland in the chase for the Rally GP title.
Botswana rider Ross Branch, winner of last year’s Rally Kazakhstan, goes into action with fellow Hero Motorsports Team Rally riders Joaquim Rodrigues and Franco Caimi.
Also in contention is Luciano Benavides, runner up to Sunderland in Abu Dhabi in 2019, who teams up with Husqvarna Factory Racing’s American rider, Skyler Howes.
On March 6, the rally heads out from Abu Dhabi across the Al Dhafra region with five competitive stages of 264km, 318km, 270km, 257km and 217km in a total route of 1,917km.