French star holds big lead but can't afford mistakes as cross country rally series heads for climax in UAE

Dubai, UAE, 21 September 2006: Defending champion Marc Coma is hoping to ensure the FIM Cross Country Rallies world title race goes down to the wire for the second successive year when the sport's top riders assemble for the UAE Desert Challenge in November.

Frenchman David Casteu has a commanding lead over Coma with just two events left in the 2006 series, and it seems only a disaster can prevent him from snatching the world crown from the Spanish star after finishing runner-up last year.

But the uncertainties of cross country rallying mean Casteu cannot afford to relax, and while he could clinch the title in next month's Pharaohs Rally, a win for Coma in Egypt may leave the champion elect with a nervous last leg in the UAE.

It's a scenario Coma knows well. He held a big championship lead over Casteu at the start of last year's Desert Challenge, and had to hold his concentration through five days of demanding desert riding in the UAE to make sure of the world title.

"You just can't take anything for granted in this sport," said Mohammed Ben Sulayem, President of the Automobile and Touring Club for the UAE and chairman of the organising committee for an event enjoying a big sponsorship boost this year from property developer Nakheel.

"David and Marc know that a big points lead can be wiped out by a single mistake or a mechanical failure. If they championship is still not decided by the time they get here, we could still have a very interesting climax to the season."

Casteu leads Coma by 31pts in the World Championship, with 50pts still available for wins in the last two rounds. In third place is another Spaniard, Isidre Esteve, who returns to the UAE hoping for a repeat of his 2004 bikes triumph in the Desert Challenge.

In fact eight of the current World Championship top ten are among 52 riders already confirmed for the event. They include Norway's 2004 world champion Pal Anders Ullevalseter, four-times Desert Challenge winner Cyril Despres from France, Spain's Jordi Viladoms, Italy's Maurizio Sanna and Brazil's Jean Azevedo.

This year's Desert Challenge is also sponsored by Nissan Middle East - with the Nissan Patrol the rally's official car -- FedEx, Castrol, Hertz UAE, ADNOC, and Emarat.

While defending champion Stephane Peterhansel will be hot favourite to take his Mitsubishi to a fourth Desert Challenge cars win backed by team-mates Luc Alphand and Hiroshi Masuoka, a powerful line-up of other overseas challengers will be aiming to make their mark on the event.

Once again there is a strong French element, with Ronan Chabot entering a powerful Toyota Prado, Jean-Claude Reboux and Jacky Lechleiter in a pair of Volkswagen Buggys, and Rodolphe Lavoise and David Gabis driving a pair of Nissan Pathfinders in the production class.

An impressive line-up of T1 prototypes also includes the Toyota Tundra of Italian Franco Grigoletto and the UAE-based Team Saluki Land Rover driven by Mark Powell, originally a member of the sweep team which provides assistance for vehicles in trouble.