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UAE’s Leading Rally Drivers Reach Out to Future Emirati Champions


Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge competitors speak of hopes for future of rallying

ABU DHABI (UAE). Wednesday, April 11, 2012:As they recover from five exhausting days battling 2,000 kilometres of some of the toughest terrain in the world, the UAE’s top cross-country racers have spoken of their hopes of seeing even more Emiratis in next year’s Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge.

The world’s ultimate desert rally, the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge has a reputation around the world as arguably the toughest, most technically demanding of rallies. The towering sand dunes of the Empty Quarter desert, combined with the searing heat of the sun and the length of the stages, means that it is a massive achievement just to be able to finish it.

In fact, the rally is much more than just a competition between participants. Each racer first has to overcome the extremely testing desert conditions as well their own personal mental battles.

This year, an impressive 85% of the Emiratis who started the endurance event on day one managed to complete it, compared to the race average of 70%. Several of them also recorded notable wins. Yahya Bel Helei won the cars T2 class, and claimed fourth place overall, while Ahmed Al Fahim took the T3 class in his Polaris Buggy. Obaid Al Kitbe was victorious in the quads category.

Bel Helei is the only competitor to have raced in every Desert Challenge since its inception. “As an Emirati, I am proud to have taken part in this rally for the past 22 years, and to have such a good record of competing here. It is an extremely difficult race and that is why it attracts the top names from this sport,” he said. 

“Looking at how the Emiratis who have taken part this year have fared, I don’t see why we can’t compete against the world’s best,” said Al Fahim. “There is so much talent in the UAE. Many Emiratis have off-road bikes and quads, so it would be great to see more take part next year. The Desert Challenge is an amazing race to test yourself and see how well you can do against the world’s best.”

Khalifa Al-Mutaiwei stole many of the headlines as he slugged it out with eventual winner, Jean-Louis Schlesser, at the top of the cars category. The 2004 FIA World Champion made his return to competitive rallying this year and is keen to see more Nationals involved. “It is very important to see more participation from young Emiratis, not only in the Desert Challenge, but in rallying in general, so they can continue the legacy of the many great Emirati rally drivers before them,” he said.

“It is mportant to bear in mind that we have grown up in the desert, so rallying in this type of terrain suits us best,” he added. “With the right tools, we can take on and beat competitors from other parts of the world. However, young drivers need strong backing as taking part in this type of sport has significant financial cost implications.”

Earlier this year, Mohammed Balooshi became the first Emirati to take part in the motorcycle category of the Dakar Rally, making him well qualified to speak about the rally’s position on the global sporting calendar, and his thoughts about others following in his tracks.

“To be honest, it’s so hard and long. You have to be physically fit and mentally prepared. There are five days of battling extremely difficult terrain, and of course in April it’s very hot in the desert, all of which tests you to the limit,” said Balooshi.

“This is a great opportunity for young Emiratis to experience something amazing. We have lived in the desert and this is our terrain so it would be fantastic for the honour of our country if more took part.”

The Desert Challenge was founded 22 years ago by Mohammed Ben Sulayem. The most successful Arabic rally driver ever, Ben Sulayem is now president of rally organisers, the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE, and FIA Vice-president.

“The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge was originally set up by Emiratis to allow Emiratis to host a top class rally that could be shared with the world. It is unusual in the rallying world, where most major rallies are based on already existing formats,” said Ben Sulayem.

“2012 has been one of the best, with a truly first class field taking part, including many world champions. It has been particularly pleasing to see so many UAE nationals, whose participation contributes to the unique nature and atmosphere of the event, do so well,” he added.

The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge is held under the patronage of HH Sheikh Hamdan Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Ruler’s Representative in the Western Region. Its high-profile line-up of supporters includes the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority, Nissan and ADNOC.