DESERT CHALLENGE HEADS FOR CLASSIC BATTLE IN THE EMPTY QUARTER
Focus of cross country rallying world turns from Dubai to Abu Dhabi in season grand finale to decide two world titles
Dubai, UAE, 5th November, 2006: The focus of the cross country rallying world switches from Dubai to Abu Dhabi and the Rub Al Khali tomorrow (Monday) as the UAE Desert Challenge begins in earnest, with two world titles at stake over the next five days.
After the exciting Sunday afternoon super special stage which gave spectators a ringside view of the action in Dubai, the event starts officially from the Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi at 9.30am (Monday).
Ahead for the 116 prototype cars, modified 4WD vehicles, trucks and bikes assembled from 30 countries lies five days of dramatic desert driving in the penultimate round of both the FIA Cross Country Rally World Cup and the FIM Cross Country Rallies World Championship.
"We have all the ingredients of a classic event, and I can't remember a better quality line up for a round of the World Cup series," said Mohammed Ben Sulayem, President of the Automobile and Touring Club for the UAE and chairman of the organising committee.
Leading the procession of rally muscle and machinery away from the UAE capital towards the Rub Al Khali or Empty Quarter is bikes world champion in waiting, French rider David Casteu. He can only lose the world title to the man following him away from the start, Spain's defending champion, Marco Coma, should he find disaster in the season's grand finale.
Surrounded by a cluster of world rallying superstars on four wheels, comparatively unknown Russian, Sergey Shmakov, already has the World Cup drivers' title safely tucked away. Top-seeded in the Desert Challenge as a result, he now attempts to clinch the team crown for Moscow Zil at the expense of the Mitsubishi and Volkswagen works outfits.
Frenchman Stephane Peterhansel, chasing his fourth Desert Challenge cars victory in five years, starts fourth in his Mitsubishi Pajero Montero Evolution but is the clear pre-event favourite, even though the other two men ahead of him are also Dakar Rally winners.
Mitsubishi team-mate Luc Alphand starts in second place on the strength of his 2006 Dakar Rally win, just in front of buggy man and five-times Desert Challenge winner, Jean-Louis Schlesser.
Adding to one of the most powerful line-ups in World Cup history, another Mitsubishi Dakar Rally winner, Japan's Hiroshi Masuoka, hopes to repeat his 2004 Desert Challenge triumph, while two of the greatest of World Rally champions aim to carry Volkswagen to glory.
The legendary Ari Vatanen won the event in 1997 and would love to turn back the clock with another victory, while 1990 and 1992 WRC king Carlos Sainz would like nothing better than to mark his first competitive drive in the Middle East by making VW No.1.
Also chasing podium places is a BMW X-raid quartet headed by last year's runner-up, Jose Luis Monterde, backed by top Germany lady driver Jutta Kleinschmidt, Qatar's Middle East rally champion, Nasser Al Attiyah, and Brazil's Paulo Nobre.
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 2006 UAE Desert Challenge is sponsored by Nakheel, the premier property developer behind Dubai's most spectacular projects.
The event is also sponsored by Nissan Middle East - with the Nissan Patrol the rally's official car -- FedEx, Castrol, Hertz UAE, Mashreq Bank, ADNOC, Emarat, Inmarsat, Gulf News and Oasis Water.
Rally enthusiasts and the general public can follow the progress of the event, and any individual competitor, by visiting the official website (www.uaedesertchallenge.com) and selecting the Iritrack link. The website also carries regular Nissan audio reports and updates.
While the foreign challenge is formidable, local desert expertise may yet put UAE names on the honours list. After claiming third place last year in his Liberty Rally Team Chevrolet, Yahya Alhelei aims for at least a top five finish as he goes back into action along with team-mates Ahmad Bin Suqat and Obaid Bin Hatboor.
In the battle of the bikes, Casteu has a 24-point lead over Coma, but with 25pts going for a win, the Frenchman can afford no mechanical nightmares or lapses in concentration.
Eight of the current world top ten leave the start in Abu Dhabi, and other potential victors this week include France's Cyril Despres -- already a four-times winner - Norway's 2004 world champion Pal Anders Ullevalseter, and Spain's Isidre Esteve, triumphant in the Desert Challenge two years ago.
Monday's action and where to see it on the Abu Dhabi Tourist Authority Special Stage 1 (284.45km)
After 9.30am ceremonial start at the Emirates Palace Hotel, first bike begins special stage at 10.35am behind Abu Dhabi Air Force base at Mafraq. A "warm-up" stage for most competitors who have not driven in a desert for many months. Consisting pipeline and sand tracks with some short no track sections. Best viewing at Passage Control 2: service & bikes refuel spot. Access from White Sands grocery store on Al Dhafrah--Hameem road
-credit: Total Communications