ABU DHABI // Battered by swirling sands and struggling to see more than a couple of metres ahead, the 100-plus participants in this year's Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge got a timely insight yesterday into what they can expect to face over the next five days.
The Super Special stage of the Emirates' annual endurance race took place on a specially constructed desert track at the edge of Yas Marina Circuit. Yet with an afternoon shamal sweeping through the capital, it could have just as easily have been the middle of Liwa.
The Ferrari World roller-coaster, which usually looms so prominently over that part of the island, hid amid the dust clouds as rider Mohammed Abu-Issa of Qatar and driver Krystof Holowczyc of Poland posted the fastest laps in bikes and cars during the event's curtain-raiser.
The Super Special stage, traditional in rally, focuses primarily on providing spectators a chance to see the sport's finest drivers before they depart on long treks through inhospitable lands.
Around two hundred people turned up to watch yesterday, although the majority were sporting team apparel.
Mohammed ben Sulayem founded the Challenge in 1991 when around 30 competitors from across the country competed.
Now in its 23rd year, the entry list has grown exponentially and internationally, courtesy in great part to the inclusion of the event on the calendar of the FIA World Cup of Cross Country Rallies.
This year's event lists 49 drivers and 51 riders, including several world champions, with 37 countries, such as Brazil, New Zealand and Venezuela, all represented.
Yesterday Ben Sulayem, a 14-time Middle East Rally Champion, pulled his ghutra across his mouth to protect him from the storm as he greeted each competitor one-by-one at the start line, before counting them down and waving them off with a UAE flag.
The Emirati enjoyed an extended chat with Mark Coma, the Spanish rider who has won here the past four years.
Coma, a popular figure in world motorsport is also a Red Bull athlete and, as the top seed, is naturally the favourite to take the opening round of the FIM World Championship. Yet he appeared off the pace amid the shamal, finishing 10th fastest, more than 3.65 seconds behind Abu-Issa.
Holowczyc, alongside German co-pilot Andreas Schulz, meanwhile wasted little time in showing his intentions, finishing top of the car category by almost two seconds.
The result will provide the Pole with a solid base going into today's 299km first leg as he attempts to better his second-place finish at last month's World Cup season-opening race in Italy.
International involvement has reduced the chances of an amateur Emirati winner.
So while Yahya Al Helei, an exuberant ever-present having competed in every iteration since 1991, targets another production-class win, the UAE's most likely success story can be found in the quads category, where Obaid Al Kitbe is defending his title.
In cross country rally, surviving is a grand achievement in itself. Al Helei, however, is confident local knowledge can help bring the country some success.
"For me, every year it gets easier; I understand more," he said.
"We know what to expect in the desert and we can deal with the heat no problem. Not everybody can say that."
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