Double WRC winner has title in his grasp, but must avoid repeat of last year's misfortune in Desert Challenge

Carlos Sainz can bridge a 15-year gap by clinching a third world rally crown in next week's UAE Desert Challenge.

The dashing Spaniard goes into the spectacular 2,210-km event holding a six-point lead over big rival and defending Desert Challenge champion Luc Alphand in the race for the drivers' title in this year's FIA Cross Country Rally World Cup.

It means top seed Sainz is favourite to add the World Cup title to his two World Rally Championship triumphs of 1990 and 1992, but he will be taking nothing for granted in the final round which follows events in Portugal, South Africa, Argentina and Morocco.

While he won three out of six special stages in the UAE last year in his Volkswagen Race Touareg prototype, a second day mechanical disaster wrecked his victory hopes and a similar misfortune next week could destroy his World Cup bid.

It could also ruin Volkswagen's bid to snatch the World Cup manufacturers' crown from Mitsubishi, although that particular battle is not restricted to a straight forward fight between Sainz and Alphand.

South African Giniel de Villiers takes the wheel of a second VW Race Touareg 2, while former world downhill skiing champion Alphand has three-times Desert Challenge winner Stephane Peterhansel and Joan "Nani" Roma as team-mates, and the performance of any one could be decisive.

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.

With the Nissan Patrol the official car for a fourth year, 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, the official hotel.

Sainz heads the drivers' seeding list for the 17th edition of the UAE Desert Challenge from Alphand and Brazilian Paolo Nobre who lies third in the World Cup standings. Nobre drives one of four BMW X3s entered by the X-Raid team, with 1996 Desert Challenge winner Bruno Saby, reigning FIA Middle East rally champion Nasser Al-Attiyah of Qatar and Frenchman Guerlain Chicherit all hoping to make their mark on the event.

"Once again we have attracted very strong entries from the major factory teams, showing how important the Desert Challenge is to them all as an event in its own right, and as a preparation for the Dakar Rally, " said Mohammed Ben Sulayem, President of the Emirates Automobile and Touring Club.

The highest-seeded Arab driver is another Qatari, 1993 Middle East rally champion Sheikh Hamad Al Thani who enters a Nissan Patrol partnered by Kevory Saryan. Heading the UAE challengers on the 46-car seeding list is Yahya Alhelei, who finished third in the event two years ago and starts in eleventh position, with Liberty Chevrolet team-mate Ahmed Bin Sougat in 14th spot.

The traditional curtain-raiser for the event, the super special spectator stage, roars to life in Dubai at 4pm next Sunday (28th October), before the official start from Abu Dhabi the following morning launches five days of dramatic desert action in the Empty Quarter.