Desert Challenge Commences Battle in The Empty Quarter

Focus of international rallying world turns from Dubai to Abu Dhabi as Peterhansel chases hat-trick and Norwegian aims for bikes crown

Dubai, UAE, 10 October 2004: The focus of the international cross country rallying world switches from Dubai to Abu Dhabi and the Rub Al Khali today (Monday) as the UAE Marlboro Desert Challenge begins in earnest, with two world titles at stake over the next five days.

Following the exciting Sunday night Nakheel Prologue stage which gave spectators a ringside view of the action at Jebel Ali Racecourse, the event starts officially from the Marina Mall in Abu Dhabi at 9.30am (Monday).

Ahead for the 126 prototype cars, modified 4WD vehicles, trucks and bikes assembled from 42 countries lies five days of dramatic desert driving in the penultimate round of both the FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies and the FIM Cross Country Rallies World Championship.

Frenchman Stephane Peterhansel sets off as the hot favourite for a third successive Desert Challenge victory in his Mitsubishi Pajero Montero Evolution, and could wrestle the lead in the World Cup series from the UAE's Khalifa Al Mutaiwei who needs to win the event in a BMW X5 to clinch the title, with a final round to follow in Argentina.

Peterhansel's biggest challengers include his team-mate, Japanese star Hiroshi Masuoka, former world rally champions Colin McRae of Britain in a Nissan Pick-up and Finland's Juha Kankkunen in a Volkswagen Taureg, Belgium's ex-world Group N rally champion Gregoire De Mevius in another Nissan Pick-up, veteran French desert raider Bruno Saby and top German lady driver Jutta Kleinschmidt in two more VW Tauregs, and Hungarian Bala'zs Szalay in an Opel Frontera.

While the World Cup title is still very much up for grabs, Norway's Pål Anders Ullevålseter already has one hand on the world crown for bikes, although he must avoid a mechanical failure or any other major mishap to shut the door on Poland's Jacek Czachor and Spain's Marc Coma.

"The eyes of the cross country rallying world are on the UAE, and we have all the ingredients for a fantastic event," said Mohammed Ben Sulayem, the driving force behind the rally.

Making the transition again from the world of politics to the world of desert driving, Rustam Minnikhanov, the Prime Minister of the Russian Republic of Tatarstan, aims to complete a hat-trick of victories in the increasingly-popular trucks category. He drives one of three vehicles entered by the official Kamaz factory team which faces competition from two Italian and one French crew.

The Desert Challenge is being held under the patronage of H.H. Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, and H.H. General Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and Minister of Defence of the UAE.

The event is co-sponsored by Nissan, official vehicle supplier to the organisers, Nakheel, Abu Dhabi Aviation, the Government of Dubai's Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing, Emarat, ADNOC, Messina Line, Oasis Pure Drinking Water, Inmarsat, providers of satellite communications, Gulf Agency Company, Konica Document Solutions, website designers ANLONITS, What's On, 7 Days, as well as Dubai International Marine Club and Le Meridian Mina Selah Beach Resort and Marina.

After the official start in Abu Dhabi, the rally heads for the first of the competitive stages reaching into the Empty Quarter, with the 350-km section finishing at the Moreeb Hill bivouac, the desert camp site located close to the Liwa oasis where the event will be based for four nights.