Drivers and riders geared up for Dubai spectator spectacle
The 16th edition of the UAE Desert Challenge, the Middle East's most dramatic motor sport event, gets under way with a world-class super show in Dubai tomorrow afternoon (Sunday).
The strongest line-up of
drivers and riders ever to assemble in the region are ready for action, with World Cup and World Championship glory up for grabs.
It all begins with a pulsating super special spectator stage which gets under way at 4pm tomorrow (Sunday) on a twisting 2km track beside Al Wasl Road in Umm Sequeim, near Dubai Police College. Admission is free for the general public.
A sparkling line-up of cars sees Ari Vatanen and Carlos Sainz, two of the greatest names in rallying history, heading for a dramatic Desert Challenge showdown with Stéphane Peterhansel in a star-studded showpiece.
In the battle of the bikes, Frenchman David Casteu faces a tense climax to the season as he bids to snatch Spaniard Marc Coma's world title.
There are no brighter stars in rallying than flying Finn Vatanan and Spanish matador Sainz. With three World Rally Championships and a multitude of worldwide victories between them, they now want to hand the Volkswagen factory team a big win over fierce Mitsubishi rival Peterhansel and stable mates Luc Alphand and Hiroshi Masuoka.
Neither teams, however, can afford to ignore a powerful four-car BMW assault lead by last year's runner-up, Spain's Jose Luis Monterde.
It promises to be the most spectacular encounter in the 16-year history of the Desert Challenge as the major forces in the FIA Cross Country Rally World Cup chase a big psychological advantage to carry into the Dakar Rally in January.
Vatanen will be partnered by Italian co-driver Fabrizia Pons and Sainz by Frenchman Michel Périn as the two VW Race Touareg 2 prototypes take on the trio of Mitsubishi Pajero/Montero Evolutions of Peterhansel - winner of the Desert Challenge three times, and the Dakar Rally twice – Alphand and Masuoka, 2004 winner in the UAE.
While Vatanen will be hoping for a happy return to the UAE where he won the Desert Challenge with Citroen in 1997, Sainz will be making his competitive debut in the Middle East, and Mohammed Ben Sulayem is relishing a reunion with both.
“It's great to see Ari back in action here, and I'm thrilled that Carlos is doing the event for the first time,” said Sulayem, President of the Automobile and Touring Club for the UAE and chairman of the organizing committee. I first met Carlos in 1987 when we competed in the Asturias Rally in Spain. When I started my Group N World Championship programme in 1992 we used to practice together and became great friends. Ever since then I've been hoping that he would come to the UAE to compete.”
Vatanen is a rallying legend, having won the Drivers World Championship in 1981, the Dakar Rally four times, and scored a long list of WRC and FIA World Cup victories in a brilliant career.
Sainz, the 1990 and 1992 World Rally Champion, has a career haul of 26 WRC victories.
He becomes the fourth former World Rally Champion to compete in the Desert Challenge following Vatanen, Juha Kankkunen and Colin McRae.
Peterhansel, Dakar Rally winner in 2004 and 2005, will be chasing a fourth victory in five years in the UAE Desert Challenge. He has been a regular visitor to the UAE since winning the bikes title in 1996. He won the Dakar Rally six times before switching from two to four wheels in 1998 and at times since has made driving at the top level, and winning, look easy.
If he encounters any problems, Team Repsol Mitsubishi Ralliart still have two other potential winners in Masouka, a two-times Dakar Rally winner, and current Dakar Rally champion Alphand.
While the battle between Volkswagen, the defending champions, and Mitsubishi, was expected to decide the FIA World Cup manufacturers' team title, that prize could now be on its way to Russia. Sergey Shmakov secured the drivers' crown by winning the previous round in Egypt and could complete the title double for the Moscow Zil team in the UAE
Competing alongside the Volkswagen factory team in the Desert Challenge is the Portuguese Team Lagos pairing of Carlos Sousa and German co-driver Andreas Schulz in another Race Touareg 2. But while the VWs and Mitsubishis will be fancied to dominate the podium, the evergreen Jean Louis Schlesser is waiting to use his vast desert knowhow to upset the odds.
Not that it would be such a surprise if Schlesser was to take his familiar buggy to victory. After all, he's already won the event five times, in 1994 and 1995, and three more times from 1999, and he remains one of the must cunning competitors in the World Cup series.
After finishing second to Peterhansel last year, Monterde is back for more in his X-Raid BMW X5, and he has great support from top Germany lady driver Jutta Kleinschmidt, Qatar's Middle East rally champion Nasser Al Attiyah and Brazil's Paulo Nobre.
Both Monterde and Nobre will go into action at the wheel of the latest BMW X5 CC prototypes while Kleinschmidt and Al Attiyah will drive highly modified versions of the BMW X3CC.
While the foreign challenge is spectacular, local knowledge and experience could still put some UAE names on the honours list. The irrepressible Yahya Alhelei once again excelled himself last year to take a magnificent third place overall in his local-based Liberty Rally Team Chevrolet and he returns to action along with team-mates Ahmad Bin Suqat and Obaid Bin Hatboor.
Once again there is a strong French element, with Ronan Chabot entering a powerful Toyota Prado, Jean-Claude Reboux and Jacky Lechleiter in a pair of Volkswagen Buggys, and Rodolphe Lavoise and David Gabis driving a pair of Nissan Pathfinders in the production class.
An impressive line-up of T1 prototypes also includes the Toyota Tundra of Italian Franco Grigoletto and the UAE-based Team Saluki Land Rover driven by Mark Powell, originally a member of the sweep team which helps vehicles in trouble. Among those hoping for better fortunes this time will be German lady driver Andrea Mayer who failed to complete the event last year and returns at the wheel of a Mega Dakar Desert.
Defending bikes champion Marc Coma made sure the FIM Cross Country Rallies world title race goes down to the wire for the second successive year in the UAE by winning the recent Pharaoh's Rally in Egypt. Now it is the turn of Frenchman David Casteu to sweat.
Casteu has a 24-point lead over Coma and looks assured of the world crown. But with 25pts available for a win, Coma will be pushing hard while Casteu must avoid any last round disasters to avoid seeing the world title slip from his grasp. It's a scenario Coma knows well. He held a big championship lead over Casteu at the start of last year's Desert Challenge, and had to hold his concentration through five days of demanding desert riding in the UAE to make sure of the world title.
All of the top eight from the World Championship standings will be in action, including four-times Desert Challenge winner and former world champion Cyril Despres from France, Norway's 2004 world champion Pal Anders Ullevalseter, and Spain's Isidre Esteve, winner here two years ago.
Enormously powerful and surprisingly fast, the trucks run behind the motorcycles and cars in the event, and the official Kamaz factory team has been dominant over the last six years, with Rustam Minnikhanov, the Prime Minister of the Russian Republic of Tatarstan, their driving force. The PM makes a welcome return after missing last year's event because of a broken leg, and aims for a fourth Desert Challenge triumph in five years.
Press Release Desert Challenge