Al Qassimi, Al Rajhi face daunting victory bids as rally heads for tough five-day test

The UAE’s Khalid Al Qassimi and Saudi Arabia’s Yazeed Al Rajhi will be battling the odds, and event history, when they each set off in pursuit of victory tomorrow morning in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge powered by Nissan.

After today’s (Saturday) ceremonial start at Yas Marina Circuit, the rally begins in earnest with the 261.97km first of five desert stages running through the dunes and sabka plains of the Al Dafrah Region in a route totalling 2,006.73km in length.

Al Qassimi, partnered by Frenchman Xavier Panseri in an Abu Dhabi Racing Peugeot 3008 DKR, knows what it is like to win the event, having done so in 2017 as his focus switched from WRC to cross country rallying.

It had been 25 years since another Emirati, Mohammed Mattar, secured victory in the Desert Challenge which has seen Arab drivers find success only six times in its 28 previous editions.

While Ahmed Al Shegawi won the T2 production cars category last year, Al Rajhi is attempting to become the first outright Saudi winner, helped by German co-driver Dirk Von Zitzewitz in a Toyota Hilux Overdrive.

In sharp contrast, Stéphane Peterhansel and Cyril Despres have winning odds much more in their favour in an event which has brought 15 cars triumphs over the years for French drivers.

Accompanied by wife Andrea in a Mini John Cooper Works buggy, Peterhansel is responsible for five of those victories, plus one in the bikes category where Despres notched the other five by French riders before also switching from two wheels to four.

If an individual country’s success matters, Honda works team rider Joan Barreda Port could have a strong chance of denying KTM rival Sam Sunderland a second Desert Challenge bikes crown in three years.

Spain has scored ten previous bikes victories in the event, eight of them by Marc Coma who won five times in a row from 2009, a sequence which might inspire his former KTM team-mate Sunderland as much as Barreda Port.

Looking to impress again in the company of the sport’s top riders is the UAE’s reigning FIM world champion Mohammed Al Balooshi who returns to action in the Desert Challenge looking for a top finish after engine failure prevented him from starting the recent Dubai International Baja.

 “We’ve had so many great champions over the years, and I’m proud when I look at the long list of famous drivers and riders who have come here to win,” said Mohammed Ben Sulayem, President of the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE, the rally organisers, and FIA Vice President for Sport.

“Whether you’re a world-class competitor or an amateur enthusiast competing against the best in the sport, you can’t fail to be impressed by our record. It’s always interesting, as well as difficult, to guess who this year’s winners will be.”

Taking place under the patronage of HH Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Ruler’s Representative in Al Dafrah Region, the Desert Challenge is supported Abu Dhabi Aviation, Abu Dhabi Police, ADNOC, Al Ain Water, Al Dhafra Region Ruler’s Representative Court, National Ambulance, Nissan, United Arab Emirates Armed Forces and Yas Marina Circuit. The Nissan Patrol is the official car for the event.

The event forms the second round of the 2019 FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies for cars and buggies and Abu Dhabi will be followed by rounds in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Morocco.

The Desert Challenge also forms the opening round of this year’s FIM Cross Country Rallies World Championship for bikes and quads which will continue into China, Chile and Morocco.

Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge powered by Nissan, rally itinerary:

31 March:        Yas Marina Circuit Stage 1 (261.97km) – starting 9am

1 April:            Al Ain Water Stage 2 (222.80km) – starting 6.00am

2 April:            Nissan Stage 3 (297.97km) – starting 6.15am

3 April:            ADNOC Stage 4 (286.10km) – starting 6.00am

4 April:            Abu Dhabi Aviation Stage 5 (214.47km) – starting 6.25am

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