Dubai: Mohammad Al Beloushi is relishing a sturdy challenge from a host of top-class riders including Chilean debutant Tomas De Gavardo as the Dubai International Baja is flagged off from the Dubai Autodrome at 6pm on March 7.

Coming in as the defending FIM World Cup and Dubai Baja champion, Al Beloushi is the top-ranked rider in the 55-strong field. Given his vast experience over the past two decades, it will be tough to restrain the UAE’s top rider, now on a Kawasaki KX 450 bike for the first time.

“Perhaps, I had never dreamt of this moment when I would be providing for my family as a rider. But 20 years is a long time and the feeling now is to ensure we go out there and meet any challenge that is before us,” Al Beloushi told Gulf News at the official announcement of the Dubai International Baja. “This year too, we have a strong field like any other year. But then the next challenge will be to improve on the best times and continue with the legacy.”

De Gavardo is also hoping to make an impression on his debut in Dubai. “The biggest challenge for me will be to adjust to the terrain. This is my first time in Dubai and I doubt I have enough time to get used to conditions here,” he said.

“I don’t know who the competition is for me. But I do know that the UAE riders have the edge and I can safely assume that it is going to be a very fast race this weekend. I hope I will be among those riders challenging for the title,” the 20-year-old added.

Others in the fray for top honours in the bikes will be the Italian pair of Manuel Lucchese and Stuart Issacs along with the Irish pair of Stuart Murray and Jason Black, alongside Kuwait’s Fahad Al Mussallam joined in by several UAE-based riders.

The UAE’s challenge among the cars will be led by Shaikh Khalid Al Qasimi in his Peugeot 3008 DKR and Frenchman Xavier Panseri by his side. Shaikh Khalid, who was in the desert with some last-minute testing of his car, has won in Dubai on three earlier occasions when the event ran as the Dubai International Rally before being reformatted and included in the FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies since 2017.

The first of two consecutive events in the UAE — the second being the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge — has attracted a strong field of 29 entrants in all four categories. Twelve months ago Shaikh Khalid’s hopes of victory were dashed by first-leg mechanical problems, doubly disappointing as he had set the pace on leg two.

Joining the mix will be Poland’s Jakub Przygonski — with new co-driver Timo Gottschalk — Russians Vladimir Vasilyev and navigator Konstantin Zhiltsov, and Martin Prokop who will return to cross-country action in the Ford Raptor RS that he powered to sixth overall in January’s Dakar Rally. Also returning is Miroslav Zapletal after finishing 10th in Qatar last week and Lithuanian Benediktas Vanagas in the Toyota Hilux that he piloted to 11th overall at Dakar.

Held under the patronage of Shaikh Hamdan Bin Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and Chairman of Dubai Sports Council, the Dubai International Baja will be run over a total of 406.53km in the Al Qudra desert.

The event is also the second round of this year’s FIA World Cup for Cross Country Bajas for cars and buggies and the opening round of the FIM Bajas World Cup for bikes and quads.

The ceremonial start for the rally will be at 6pm at the start ramp at Dubai Autodrome, Motor City, with the first of the vehicles moving out at 7.30am on March 8. The rally will finish at Dubai Autodrome, Motor City at 12.30pm on Saturday, and this will be followed by prize distribution at 5.15pm.