Three of the Arab world’s top drivers are lining up to frustrate Russia’s Vladimir Vasilyev as he tries to underline his place in the record books of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge over the next five days.
Qatar’s Nasser Al Attiyah, the UAE’s Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi and Saudi Arabia’s Yazeed Al Rajhi all want to end a run of seven consecutive victories in the event by overseas drivers, and prevent Vasilyev from becoming only the second man in history to win it three years in a row.
With the opening super special spectator stage completed, the event begins on Sunday morning when the cars, buggies, bikes and quads surge away from the UAE capital into the Western Region of Al Gharbia for the first of five demanding desert stages.
By early afternoon the survivors will reach the end of the 278-km Yas Marina Circuit Stage 1 and establish their rally base for the next four nights at the Desert Challenge bivouac, set up close to the Qasr Al Sarab Resort.
From there they will set off each morning to negotiate further competitive stages of 279km, 280km and 258km unwinding through the desert plains and mighty dunes of the Rub Al Khali, before a final 234km test leads the survivors back to the finish at Yas Marina Circuit on Thursday afternoon.
There is no easy path to victory in the Desert Challenge, and Vasilyev, driving a Mini, will need all his skill and concentration, plus the navigational prowess of Konstantin Zhilstov, if he is to match the hat-trick of wins achieved by Jean-Louis Schlesser from 1999 to 2001
“This is a very difficult event to win once, never mind three years in succession, so the odds will be against him,” said rally founder Mohammed Ben Sulayem, president of the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE, the event organizers.
“In his favor is that he knows what it takes to win, and that includes maximum concentration at all times. One mistake can leave you stuck in a sand bowl, and by the time you get out of it, your chance is gone.”
Al Attiyah, the last Arab winner of the cars category back in 2008, is seen by many as the favorite for victory this time alongside French co-driver Mathieu Baumel in a Toyota Hilux, although the Qatari was taking nothing from granted at the start of a 2,079km route featuring 1,329km of competitive stages.
Third seed Al Qassimi has returned at the wheel of another Mini in partnership with fellow-Emirati Khalid Al Kendi, and both will be hoping for better fortunes following disappointments 12 months ago.
Making his Desert Challenge debut last year, Al Qassimi was chasing a podium place on the penultimate leg when a broken gearbox put him out.
Exiting the event the same day had been more painful for Al Kendi, who was co-driving for the UAE’s Yahya Al Helei, fastest on the first leg, and had to be evacuated by helicopter to hospital with back injuries after their Nissan Pick-Up made a heavy landing.
Al Helei is in Desert Challenge action for the 26th time, hoping to use his guile and local knowledge to outmaneuver the factory cars.
After finishing fourth overall last year, Al Rajhi wants at least a podium place this time, as does a driver he knows well from the WRC stage, Finland’s Mikko Hirvonen, who took fourth place in January’s Dakar Rally on his raid debut.
With Spain’s Marc Coma now retired after his eighth bikes triumph last year, Dubai-based Sam Sunderland has the chance to grab his first Desert Challenge riders’ title.
KTM team-mate Toby Price may have something to say about that, however, and while the Australian is taking on the Rub Al Khali for the first time, his Dakar Rally win three months ago make him one to watch.
Chile’s Pablo Quintanilla is also targeting victory after his third place 12 months ago, while top Emirati rider Mohammed Al Balooshi, the multiple Arab moto cross champion, is aiming to get between the overseas stars in his home event. Reigning world champion Rafal Sonik is pursuing his second quads victory in three years.