The world’s top rally drivers and riders are preparing to make their way back to the Middle East to compete in the ultimate desert rally, the 2012 Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge (30 March – 6 April). This year’s rally is set to be more competitive than ever with racers from all over the world, including several reigning world champions, confirmed for one of the most spectacular and challenging events on the motorsport calendar.
The car category of the competition sees the return of the highly successful X-Raid team, which won last year’s Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge on the way to claiming the 2011 FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies. This year, the German-based team is entering two BMW X3 CC cars, as well as the eye-catching Mini All4 Racing, which will be driven by Emirati Khalifa Al Mutaiwei, who won the FIA World Cup title in 2004.
In one of the most spectacular rallies on earth, and for the second year running, the Emirati duo Yahya Bel Helei and Khalid Al Kendi will return to lead the charge in the Nissan Patrol. Al Kendi will be able to count on Bel Helei as he has a number of spectacular wins and a wealth of experience in both the car and bike categories. Equally Bel Helei will have full confidence in his fellow compatriot Al Kendi who also has experience in the World Rally Championship.
Certain to challenge hard for the title, following his third place in last year’s Desert Challenge, will be renowned racer Jean-Louis Schlesser. The Frenchman – a multiple Cross-Country Rallies World Champion - is once again set to take on the massive, rolling dunes of the Empty Quarter desert in his Schlesser Buggy. Also returning will be the Russian G-Force team, headed up by another former world champion, Boris Gadasin.
The bike category is set to prove equally competitive, with Honda’s HT Rally Raid team arriving in force to take on all challengers. Competing on Honda CRF450X bikes the HT Rally Raid line-up includes participants from the USA, Chile, Kazakhstan and Russia. Additionally, the team features the UAE-based youngster who last year stunned the field by claiming two stage wins in his debut Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, Sam Sunderland.
Among those who experienced Sunderland’s talent first hand in 2011 was rally legend and current Desert Challenge champion Marc Coma, who will be racing again this year for KTM and looking to record an amazing sixth win in the race. He will be joined by another KTM rallying star, Cyril Despres - remarkably, between them the two have won the last seven Dakar Rallies.
In 2011, KTM bikes took three of the top five positions, and this year an equally strong entry list will make it tough for the Hondas and Yamahas, with the latter most notably represented by the three-man Team Pedrega from Venezuela and reigning World Champion Helder Rodrigues from Portugal.
In the quad bike category, UAE resident Nicholas Black will return on his Yamaha Raptor to defend his crown after achieving an unlikely victory in his debut Desert Challenge in 2011. The same year saw second place go to Camelia Liparoti who carried on to claim the women’s FIM Cross Country Rallies World Championship for a third consecutive year.
Mohammed Ben Sulayem, President of rally organisers, the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE (ATCUAE), and Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge founder, said: “The quality of the line-up for this year’s rally is testament to the enduring appeal of this great event, which in its 22nd year continues to attract the world’s leading racers to the UAE. At the same time, it presents a unique opportunity for the Middle East’s top rallying talent to pit themselves against the best.”
The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge is held under the patronage of H.H. Sheikh Hamdan Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Ruler’s Representative in the Western Region, with support from a number of key partners including as the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority, Nissan and ADNOC.
This year it serves as the FIM Cross Country Rallies World Championship season-opener and the second round of the FIA Cross Country Rally World Cup. It offers spectators unrivalled, free access to top-class motorsport in a number of breathtaking settings, with dedicated, easy-to-access viewing points in the beautiful desert of Al Gharbia.