As the drama of the 2018 Dakar Rally disappears in the rearview mirror the next mighty offroad obstacle can be seen on the horizon. This weekend sees the start of the latest edition of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge. The historic contest takes the best cross-country competitors on a six-day route across the dunes that requires skill and endurance in equal measure.
Cyril Despres won this race five times on a bike and now returns behind the wheel of a two-wheel drive SMG Buggy. The Frenchman will be joined in his buggy by Swiss navigator Steve Ravussin as they look to master the open desert. This is Despres’ first drive since his highly successful spell with Team Peugeot Total which saw him secure two Silk Way Rally wins and a podium finish at the Dakar.
« I’ve never driven on four wheels in the deserts of Abu Dhabi before so I’m looking forward to that. There’s some fast guys at this race and I’m aiming to be battling at the front with them. » Cyril Despres
Elsewhere in the car contest we’ll be keeping our eyes on Luc Alphand’s return to competitive offroad racing. The 2006 Dakar winner returns to racing in a Mini John Cooper Works Buggy after a break of nearly a decade. German co-driver Andreas Schultz will be alongside the Frenchman in Abu Dhabi.
« I’m not putting any pressure on my shoulders, I just can’t wait to start racing. » Luc Alphand
The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge is the third round of the FIA Cross Country Rally World Cup and Polish driver Kuba Przygonski will be out to continue his strong start to the season. Alongside Belgian co-driver Tom Colsoul the target will be maximum points on the road to World Cup glory.
There’s also a hunt for silverware on two wheels as the 2018 FIM Cross-Country Rallies World Championship gets going in Abu Dhabi. Spearheading the attack for the Red Bull KTM Factory Team will be reigning Dakar champion Matthias Walkner. The Austrian rider is full of confidence following his triumph in South America and keen to start a winning streak.
« I’m focused on the world championship and recent testing in the sand of Morocco has gone well. » Matthias Walkner
Perhaps the biggest threat to Walkner’s continued domination comes from within his own team. British biker Sam Sunderland has quickly put the injury that ended the defence of his own Dakar title behind him and is back competing. The third KTM Factory rider heading to Abu Dhabi, Australia’s Toby Price, is on his bike again after enjoying some four wheel adventures.
« After the Dakar I did some testing with Sébastien Loeb, which was a lot of fun. I also contested the Mint 400 in a truck. » Toby Price
Another biker with great pedigree at the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge is Mohammed Al Balooshi. The UAE native has the talent to grab a podium place should things fall right for him.
Following a high-speed prologue stage at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi on Saturday it’s out to the Liwa Desert for five days of racing on the dunes. What a way to get another season of pulsating rally-raid action off the ground!
Cyril Despres: »I received an interesting proposal to race this buggy in Abu Dhabi from the Two Wheel Drive team. The buggy itself is a strong and powerful machine with an experienced, small team of six people that have been working on it. I’ve never driven on four wheels in the deserts of Abu Dhabi before so I’m looking forward to that. I think me and my friend Steve (Ravussin) are going to have some fun in this fuel-injection buggy. Steve is a skipper on a boat normally so this is good chance for us to discover the desert together. There’s some fast guys at this race and I’m aiming to be battling at the front with them. »
Luc Alphand: « I can’t wait to be back at the start of a rally. During the last Dakar I spoke with X-Raid about a rally-raid return driving their new buggy. I love driving in the sand so I immediately thought of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge. We’ll see what it is possible to accomplish after such a long break. I have a great co-driver and the buggy proved its potential in January. I’m not putting any pressure on my shoulders, I just can’t wait to start racing. »
Matthias Walkner: »It’s good to get back into training for the new season. I have been so busy the last couple of months. I have had so many commitments after winning the Dakar, it has been hard to think about the new season and to keep up my training routine. It has been amazing though, and I have enjoyed every minute. It really has been special to be able to celebrate my win with friends and family as well as the team at KTM and Red Bull. Now I am focused on the world championship and recent testing in the sand of Morocco has gone well. »
Sam Sunderland: « Training in Morocco has gone really well recently. It feels great to be back on the bike and back with the team. Being forced to retire from the Dakar was disappointing so I’m happy to be training and thankfully I feel good on the bike with no injuries. We had a hard week in Morocco in preparation for this first rally in Abu Dhabi. I’m really looking forward to getting back to racing and Abu Dhabi is like a home race for me. »
Toby Price: « We expect the race to be pretty tough as it’s all ridden in the sand dunes and everyone seems to push pretty hard there. Hopefully I can get a good result and then start to look ahead to the rest of the season. The goal for me is to stay fit and healthy and be ready for Dakar next year. In the past I haven’t been 100 percent going into the Dakar, so this year I want to make sure I’m at the top of my game and do everything I can to get back on top of the podium. »
Mohammed Al Balooshi: »As a competitor, I’ll by lying if I say that victory is not in my head. That is why we race. I train every day to win. With my capability, I always go out there and give my best. This is the best attitude going into any big races. If you do your personal best, whatever your result, you’ll be happy. That’s what I’ll be doing in Abu Dhabi. »