Emirati rider chases third victory in four years in climax to cross country rally season

Emirati quads star Atif Al Zarouni is hoping a successful defence of his title in the UAE Desert Challenge can help secure the sponsorship boost he needs to launch a serious world title bid next year.

Zarouni has dominated the event's quads category in recent times, and confidently chases his third victory in four years when Sunday afternoon's Dubai super special spectator stage launches the 17th edition of the Desert Challenge.

His biggest frustration is that while he has beaten many of the world's top quad riders on home territory, his success has so far failed to attract the additional financial backing he needs to chase the quads crown in the FIM Cross Country Rallies World Championship.

"I would love to try for the World Championship, and I have always wanted to do the Dakar Rally," said Zarouni, who enjoys Honda support in the UAE.

"Over the last few years I have tried very hard to get the extra sponsorship I need to be able to compete overseas, and I've even been to Europe to try and find sponsors, but I haven't managed it so far."

Zarouni faces challengers from France, Holland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Slovakia, as well as rivalry from fellow-UAE competitor Mohammed Al Shamsi, in the 17th edition of the UAE Desert Challenge.

Sponsored by Nakheel, Dubai's premier property developer, and Nissan Middle East, the Desert Challenge is held under the patronage of H.H.Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.

The event is also sponsored by Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, ADNOC, Emarat, Hertz UAE, Oasis, Inmarsat, Dubai International Marine Club and Le Meridien Mina Seyahi Beach Resort and Marina, the official hotel.

While Zarouni aims to give the host nation a victory to celebrate, another UAE challenger, experienced desert campaigner Yahya Alheli, will be aiming to show again that he can mix it with the world's best in his Chevrolet Colorado.

Alhelei began his association with the event by taking a Nissan Patrol to top-ten finishes in 1992 and 1994 before entering the experimental bikes category as a novice rider the following year.

As the Desert Challenge route swept deep into the Empty Quarter, he needed every ounce of his enthusiasm and patience. At one stage he took shelter from the sun beneath a solitary desert bush after a mechanical problem brought him to a halt.

He arrived at the bivouac in darkness to give a typically colourful narration of the kind of story which makes the Desert Challenge a great adventure, not only for those who take part, but for those who follow its progress via worldwide media coverage.

Alhelei's story, indelibly etched into Desert Challenge records, included the following extract: "I lost my clutch after 15kms. The bike would stop for an hour and then 20 to 30kms later stop for another hour. It was like that all through the day, but I managed to finish the stage by riding through the night.

"My GPS didn't work so I was riding just using my road book and by following the stars. Then I came across a camel camp, and a man there gave me some camel milk and sent me on my way." Two days later, he wore a broad grin after reaching the finish in 18th place out of a line-up of 30 invited riders.

A year later he was warned by a doctor not to ride the Desert Challenge because of back problems. But two weeks before the event he bought a Nissan Patrol from a UAE showroom, took it to a garage in Dubai, and told them: "Build me a rally car."

He won the production class and finished fifth overall that year, but his best Desert Challenge performance so far was a splendid third place two years ago behind professional rally stars Stephane Peterhansel and Spain's Jose Luis Monterde,