Khalid Al Qassimi and Sam Sunderland both face a stern examination when they attempt to defend their titles in next week’s Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge Powered by Nissan.
Partnered by French co-driver Xavier Panseri in a Peugeot Abu Dhabi Racing Team 3008 DKR, Emirati Al Qassimi heads a powerful 40-car line up on the official entry list issued today by the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE, the rally organisers.
Dubai-based KTM star Sunderland, meanwhile, is in a top quality assembly of 33 riders as he prepares to defend his bikes crown in the 28th edition of the Desert Challenge which gets under way with a super special spectator stage at Yas Marina Circuit next Saturday (24 March).
A total of 112 competitors from 28 countries will contest the event, which is the third round of this year’s FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies for cars and buggies and the opening round of the FIM Cross Country Rallies World Championship for bikes and quads.
“The quality of entries is high and competition will be fierce,” said Mohammed Ben Sulayem, President of the ATCUAE and FIA Vice President for sport. “We look forward to adding another chapter to the Desert Challenge success story.”
Taking place under the patronage of of H.H. Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Ruler’s Representative in Al Dafrah Region, the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge Powered by Nissan is supported by Al Dafrah Region Municipality, Abu Dhabi Municipality, the UAE Army, Abu Dhabi Police, Nissan Middle East, ADNOC, Abu Dhabi Aviation, Al-Ain Water, National Ambulance Service, Tadweer, Yas Marina Circuit and the Qasr Al-Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara.
The Nissan Patrol is the official car for the rally, and Oman’s Abdullah Al Zubair takes one of the Patrols entered in pursuit of the T2 production class title. The manufacturer is also represented by the UAE’s Yahya Al Helei in a Nissan PickUP, a quartet of Nissan Navaras driven by UAE-based Tom Bell and Shameer Variawa, Romanian Laurentiu-Claudiu Barbu and South African Terence Marsh, and a Nissan Patrol Pick Up entered by Saudi Khaled Alferajhi.
Among the biggest threats to Al Qassimi’s hopes of a second successive outright Desert Challenge victory is Polish driver Jakub Przygonski, fresh from his win in the recent Dubai International Baja alongside Belgian co-driver Tom Colsoul in a Mini John Cooper.
Saudi Arabia’s Yazeed Al-Rajhi rerturns to action in the deserts of the Al Dafrah Region with German co-driver Timo Gottschalk in another Mini.
Aiming to go one better in Abu Dhabi will be last year’s runners up, Czechs Martin Prokop and Jan Tomanek, in the Ford F-150 Evo which took them to fourth place in the Dubai Baja.
Russian Vladimir Vasilyev, runner up in the Dubai Baja and Desert Challenge winner in 2014 and 2015 with Konstantin Zhiltsov, will attempt to become only the third driver in the rally’s history to win the event three times following Jean-Louis Schlesser (6) and Stephane Peterhansel (5).
Making a welcome return to Abu Dhabi is Frenchman Cyril Despres, who captured the bikes title five times between 2001-2008 before switching to cars. He goes into action with Swiss co-driver and accomplished sailor Steve Ravussin in a Ford TRX08LMOD 2WD buggy.
Aiming to repeat his bikes victory of last year, Sunderland faces another major test, particularly from the two riders who completed the top three in 2017, Chilean Pablo Quintanilla on a Husqvarna and KTM factory team-mate, Austria’s reigning Dakar Rally champion, Matthias Walkner.
But a powerful five-strong Honda team also have high hopes of another Desert Challenge success, with 2014 winner Paulo Goncalves joined by American Ricky Brabec, Argentina’s Kevin Benavides, Chilean Jose Ignacio Cornejo and Frenchman Michael Metge.
After his breakthrough World Cup rally victory in the Dubai International Baja, top Emirati rider Mohammed Al Balooshi is relishing another chance to test himself against the world’s best.