DESERT CHALLENGE SET FOR BIG SEND-OFF IN DUBAI

Ibn Battuta super stage propels world championship climax towards spectacular five-day desert examination

Dubai, UAE, 8th November, 2005: The 15th edition of the UAE Desert Challenge comes to life in Dubai tomorrow when a powerful international assembly of 123 cars, bikes and trucks go into action at the climax to the world cross country rallying season.

Spectators will have a ringside seat when the final round of the FIA Cross Country Rally World Cup and the FIM Cross Country Rallies World Championship gets under way in the traditional Prologue super stage, a pulsating time trial taking this place at Dubai's Ibn Battuta Mall.

The action begins at 4pm beside Nakheel's landmark shopping destination which is themed around the travels of the renowned 14th Century Arabian explorer, Ibn Battuta.

From Dubai the international procession of modern day cross country travellers head for Abu Dhabi where the official start of the event takes place at 9.30 on Thursday morning at the luxurious Emirates Palace hotel.

Competitors then head out of the UAE capital for the start of the opening Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority special stage, a 283-km competitive section finishing at the Moreeb Hill bivouac, the rally's desert base for four nights near the Liwa oasis.

The next three mornings bring special stages carrying the rally out from the Moreeb Hill bivouac into the notorious Empty Quarter, before the 308-km Nissan stage takes the survivors to the finish at Dubai International Marine Club at 4.30pm on Monday.

"The stage is set for a very competitive event, and while there are obviously some strong favourites it is very difficult to pick a winner in any of the categories with any real confidence," said Mohammed Ben Sulayem, chairman of the organising committee, who addressed today's official press conference at Dubai International Marine Club.

That comment will not be lost on French star Stephane Peterhansel, winner of the last two Dakar Rallies, whose two successive Desert Challenge victories were followed last year by a first-day mechanical disaster which dropped his Mitsubishi Pajero/Montero Evolution from contention.

While Peterhansel's prototype tops the 40-vehicle cars entry, Spanish KTM star Marc Coma heads a powerful line-up of 80 riders as he looks to clinch the FIM Cross Country Rallies World Championship

The Desert Challenge is sponsored by Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, Nissan Middle East - with the Nissan Patrol the rally's official car - Dubai Waterfront, an 81 million square metre development by Nakheel, Dubai's Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing, ADNOC, Emarat and Inmarsat, providers of satellite communications.

The event is co-sponsored by Oasis Water, Al Noor Hospital, Konica Minolta, ANLONITS, Messina Line and Le Meridien Mina Seyahi Beach Resort and Marina, the official hotel.

The status the event now enjoys has been emphasised by the fact that, at the suggestion of the FIA, motorsport's world governing body, the South African organisers of a new World Cup rally next year are in the UAE this week to examine how the rally is put together. Organisers of another event in China who are eyeing a World Cup place are also present for the same reason.

For the first time, the public will be able to follow the progress of competitors by visiting the official website (www.uaedesertchallenge.com) and selecting the Iritrack link. This tracking system introduced last year to boost safety for competitors was so successful that it has since been adopted by all World Cup events, and the Dakar Rally.

Peterhansel's challengers include fellow-Frenchman Ronan Chabot in a Toyota KDJ 120, Mitsubishi team-mate Joan Roma from Spain and Abu Dhabi-based French driver Laurent Rosso in a Nissan Pathfinder. The top six is completed by Spain's Jose Luis Monterde, partnered in a BMW X5 by two-times world rally champion co-driver Tiziano Siviero, and Germany's Ellen Lohr in a Mercedes-Benz ML 350 prototype making its world debut. Ahmed Bin Suqat in a Chevrolet Pick-up is the highest-seeded UAE driver in seventh spot.

Victory in Egypt's Pharaohs Rally last month gave Coma a powerful 13-point world championship lead but he faces competition in the Desert Challenge from two men who can still beat him to the title, David Casteu and fellow-Frenchman Cyril Despres, the 2003 world champion and three-times winner in the UAE.

While his reign as world bikes champion ends this week, Norway's Pål Anders Ullevålseter aims for another podium finish after his third place last year, as does Poland's Marek Dabrowski, runner-up to Spain's Isidre Esteve 12 months ago.

Also in the hunt will be three UAE-based riders, Tim Trenker, Steve Blackney and Sean Linton who finished fifth, sixth and seventh last year.

After his runaway 2004 quads victory, the UAE's Atif Al Zarouni takes on Portugal's Ricardo Leal Dos Santos and Frenchman Jean Phillippe Caillet, the only other rider who can snatch this year's world title. Rustam Minnikhanov, Prime Minister of the Russian Republic of Tatarstan, misses the chance of a fourth straight trucks win because of a broken leg, but the Kamaz factory team are again strong favourites.

-www.totalcompr.com