Emirati Al Helei leads Nissan Patrol chase for victory as Sulayem sets stage for dramatic World Cup test
Dubai, UAE: Nissan's role in keeping the UAE Desert Challenge at the forefront of the FIA Cross Country Rally World Cup could be rewarded with a major breakthrough when the 18th edition of the dramatic event takes place next month.
That's the view of Mohammed Ben Sulayem, President of the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE, who has just shaken hands on another year of Nissan sponsorship for the event he launched in 1991.
The enforced attendance change by manufacturers' teams and some of the world's most famous professional drivers means that the battle for supremacy in this year's Desert Challenge, taking place from 24-31 October, has been thrown wide open to new challengers..
And with a powerful line-up of Nissan Patrols and other Nissan challengers in the hunt, Sulayem believes the event's official vehicle partner could at least land a podium finish, and even clinch outright victory.
"While we don't have some of the top professional teams just for this time, we'll have one of the biggest entries in recent years and, ironically, it could be the most competitive Desert Challenge we've ever staged, with no obvious favourites.
Added Sulayem: "Nissan's support over the last four years has been vital, not only by providing a fleet of Nissan Patrols for the route planning team, but in terms of their overall support to help us set the standard in the World Cup. It would be great to see a Patrol come through and win this time."
Nissan Middle East's SUV Brand Manager Abdul Ilah Wazni commented: "Once again we are delighted to support this most authentic and challenging event which finds such appeal amongst the desert rallying fans in the UAE. Nissan prides itself on having the largest and most naturally capable range of SUVs in the region and at the heart of this range is the Patrol. We wish all competitors a safe and exciting event and of course, especially those who have chosen to compete in the Nissan Patrol which many regard as 'The King of the Desert".
This year's Desert Challenge line-up will be missing star names like Stephane Peterhansel, Luc Alphand and Carlos Sainz because of the logistical problems presented to the Mitsubishi, Volkswagen and BMW teams by the decision to switch the Dakar Rally to Argentina and Chile next January. The move followed the cancellation of this year's event after the murder of four French citizens and three Mauritanian soldiers by terrorists in the build-up.
"It would be a logistical nightmare for the factory teams to compete here before going on to South America," said Sulayem. "But they'll be back here next year for sure. None of them want to miss the Desert Challenge."
Taking place 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 Desert Challenge has been won only three times by an Arab driver, although several of this year's contenders will be looking to change that.
After successive victories by the UAE's Mohammed Mattar in 1991 and 1992, Qatar's former Middle East rally champion, Saeed Al Hajri, won the event the following year.
The Arab driver who has gone closest to landing the title since then is the UAE's Yahya Alhelei, and he'll fancy his chances of making a big impact this time at the wheel of a Nissan Patrol.
Alhelei, who will be partnered by Khalid Al Kendi, has scored a number of top ten finishes, including a superb third behind Peterhansel and Spain's Jose Luis Monterde in 2005, followed by ninth in 2006 and fifth last year.
A cluster of other Nissan Patrol drivers aiming to mount a challenge include Russian Andrey Ivanov, New Zealander Glen Reid, UAE competitors Abdul Bari bin Souqat and Abdulla Al Heraiz, and Qatar's former Middle East champion, Sheikh Hamad Al Thani
A mighty assembly of cars, bikes and trucks arriving from across the Middle East and overseas will start assembling at the Desert Challenge HQ at Dubai International Marine Club, Mina Seyahi, in time for official documentation and scrutineering on 24-25th October.
The following day brings a super special spectator stage in Dubai, before the ceremonial start in Abu Dhabi the next morning.
The rally heads away from the UAE capital for five days of special stage action centred on the Moreeb Hill bivouac close to the Liwa oasis before the finish at Dubai International Marine Club on 31st October.