Competitors were flagged away from the ceremonial start of the Al Ula–Neom Cross-Country Rally, the third round of the new Saudi Toyota Desert Rally Championship, in the city of Al Ula on Tuesday afternoon.
The four-stage event is being organised by the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation (SAMF), under the chairmanship of H.R.H. Prince Khalid bin Sultan Al-Abdullah Al-Faisal and the supervision of former FIA Middle East champion Abdullah Bakhashab.
Fifty-nine cars, seven motorcycles, seven quads and one truck and will tackle the first of four selective sections of 212km through the deserts of the north-west of the Kingdom around Al Ula on Wednesday morning. Entrants were flagged away from the start by H.R.H. Prince Khalid bin Sultan Al-Abdullah Al-Faisal.
Prior to the start, several leading competitors attended the official pre-event press conference. Spaniard Fernando Alonso, Abu Dhabi Racing’s Sheikh Khalid Al-Qassimi and Saudi drivers Yazeed Al-Rajhi, Essa Al-Dossari, Khalid Al-Feraihi were present, in addition to quad rider Abdulmajeed Al-Khulaifi, truck racer Ibrahim Al-Muhanna and further local entrants Salman Al-Shammeri, Mishal Alghuneim and Saleh Al-Saif.
Speaking before and during the press conference, an upbeat Alonso said: “I am happy to be here in Saudi Arabia. The desert here is completely different to Morocco. The terrain is flatter and easier. There are no stones and rocks and I think I will be better suited to this type of rally. The people here have been so hospitable. I also hope to gain a lot of experience here with the car.
“In Formula One, you know the circuits well and get big experience of all the corners. In cross-country rallies, like in Saudi Arabia or Morocco, It is huge terrain and you cannot know everything. There are a lot of elements to take into consideration. It is very difficult to get the knowledge of all the aspects.
“This is my second rally after Morocco, one month ago, and I am happy that it is happening here in Saudi. It is the first time for me in the country and I am impressed and surprised by the landscape in this beautiful country that I have found these last two days. Thanks also to Yazeed for helping me over the last week. These four days of rally will be very useful for us.”
There were a couple of co-driver changes at the head of the field before the start, with the experienced Russian Konstantin Zhiltsov teaming up with top seed Yazeed Al-Rajhi and Frenchman Francois Cazalet sitting alongside Yasir Seaidan in his MINI All4 Racing.
The event is running with the support of the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation, the General Sport Authority, Abdul Latif Jameel Motors (Toyota), the MBC Group, Al-Arabia outdoors and the Saudi Research and Marketing Group.