The stage is set for a classic battle for glory in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge powered by Nissan, with 166 competitors from 36 countries preparing to tackle the 26th edition of the event.
Over the years, the Desert Challenge has produced some intriguing contests on four and two wheels, and the quality of the official entry list announced today by the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE promises another spectacular showpiece from 2-7 April.
Russia’s Vladimir Vasilyev and Konstantin Zhilstov are top seeds in the 62-strong cars category as they look for a third successive victory in Abu Dhabi, where Yas Marina Circuit provides the Rally HQ and the finishing point for the rally.
Their biggest challengers include Qatar’s two-times Dakar Rally winner Nasser Al Attiyah, the host country’s experienced World Rally Championship contender Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi, Saudi Arabia’s Yazeed Al Rajhi and Finland’s former WRC star Mikko Hirvonen.
The UAE’s 18-driver challenge also sees eighth-seeded Yahya Al Helei maintaining his remarkable 100% appearance in the event, while his son Mansour defends the T2 production class title he won last year.
The top ten seeds include accomplished German lady driver Jutta Kleinschmidt who finished third overall in the 1996 Desert Challenge and went on to become the first woman to win the Dakar Rally five years later. She forms one of two all-lady crews in the event with Swedish co-driver Tina Thorner, the other being Italians Valentina Casella and Giulia Maroni.
With Spain’s Marco Coma having retired from competitive rallying following his eighth Desert Challenge victory last year, the event is guaranteed a new bikes champion this time, and 42 riders from 12 nations will be in action.
The top seed is Dubai-based British rider Sam Sunderland, runner-up to KTM team-mate Coma last year, with Chile’s Pablo Quintanilla is seeded second after his third place 12 months ago followed by this year’s Dakar Rally winner, Australian Toby Price.
Emirati Mohammed Al Balooshi earns fourth place in the seedings on the back of his sixth place last year, while Laia Sanz, a multiple Spanish and European motorcycle trials champion who is among four lady riders taking part, is seeded sixth.
Making a welcome return to the Desert Challenge is veteran Slovenian rider Miran Stanovnik who missed the event’s 25th edition last year because of a training injury, ending an unbroken run of 19 appearances since the rally was extended to include bikes in 1995.
“They is a very powerful entry list by any standard and we now lok forward to another very competitive event,” said ATCUAE President Mohammed Ben Sulayem, the Desert Challenge founder.
“There are some new names this year, but once again we see so many familiar faces. I’m very happy to see Yahya back again, as he has been with us from the start and is a great supporter of the event. It’s also nice to welcome back Miran, who is part of the Desert challenge family.”
Taking place under the patronage of H.H.Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Ruler’s Representative in the Western region, the 26th Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge is the second round of the 2016 FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies and the opening round of this year’s FIM Cross Country Rallies World Championship.
The Nissan Patrol, the “Hero of All terrain in Life”, is positioned for the 13th year as the official vehicle of the event.
The line-up of strategic sponsors and partners includes the Ruler’s Court in the Western Region, Western Region Municipality, Abu Dhabi Municipality, the UAE Army, Abu Dhabi Police, National Ambulance Service, Nissan, Yas Marina Circuit, ADNOC, Abu Dhabi Aviation, Tadweer (The Center of Waste Management “ Abu Dhabi), Rotana and Centro Hotels – Yas Island, Qasr Al Sarab Resort, and DP World.
Vasilyev drives one of seven prototype All4 Racing Minis as he looks to become only the second driver ever to complete a hat-trick of successive of Desert Challenge cars victories after Jean-Louis Schlesser in 2001.
Partnered by French navigator Matthieu Baumel in an Overdrive Toyota Hilux, Al Attiyah will be aiming to bury his disappointment from last year when he thought he had added to his 2008 victory but was excluded for a technical irregularity at the finish.
Also hoping for better fortunes this time is Al Qassimi, who went out on the penultimate leg last year while holding fourth place on his Desert Challenge debut. He returns at the wheel of a MINI ALL4 Racing in partnership with Emirati co-driver Khalid Al Kendi. Also driving Minis are fourth-seeded Saudi Al Rajhi, who is joined by German co-driver Timo Gottschalk, and 2012 WRC runner-up Hirvonen, accompanied by Frenchman Michel Perin.
Another lady driver aiming to make an impact is Dr. Keiko Hamaguchi, a Japanese surgeon who competes with Italian Umberto Fiori in a Toyota FJ Cruiser.
The 2016 Desert Challenge gets under way with a super special spectator stage at Al Forsan International Sports Resort in Abu Dhabi on 2 April, before heading out into the Rub Al Khali for five days of spectacular desert stages. The event finishes at Yas Marina Circuit on 7 April.