ABU DHABI // The Dakar Rally is regarded as the world's most notorious endurance event, contributing more than 65 fatalities since 1979. Yet, on the eve of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, a host of international drivers and riders have suggested the Emirates' long-standing race has developed over its 23 years into an event worthy of comparison.
Courtesy of what organisers call a "hidden army" of more than 1,000 marshals and volunteers, the lingering risk of death is fortunately subdued.
Helder Rodrigues, a seven-time bike rider in the Dakar series and a former cross-country rally world champion, yesterday called the Abu Dhabi race "the most beautiful in the entire World Championship – more than Dakar".
Nani Roma of Spain, who has competed in the UAE twice on a bike and twice in a car, agreed, adding he believes it to be "the toughest race in the world", courtesy of Liwa's rolling sand dunes.
Temperatures in excess of 38°C have also seen drivers liken 300km stages of the Desert Challenge to 700km stages of Dakar.
Mohammed ben Sulayem, the race founder and head of the UAE Automobile and Touring Club, reiterated the dangers of dehydration at yesterday's official news conference, warning competitors about the event's demands.
"Do not underestimate our desert," he said. "We have one of the toughest terrains in the world and, with the weather, it is unforgiving. It may look easy on the television, but I promise you, it is not. It is tougher than Dakar, it's true.
"With the humidity, the sun and the ever-changing desert, it is very challenging, so care must be taken at all times."
Forming the season-opener of the World Championship for cross-country bikes and the second round of the FIA's World Cup for Cross Country Rallies for cars, the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge will see more than 100 drivers from 37 countries compete in the barren western region of the Emirates, including the inhospitable Empty Quarter.
"It's important not only in World Cup and World Championship terms, but also as a great event in its own right," ben Sulayem said. "The Desert Challenge is one of the world's great motorsport adventures."
This year's event starts on Yas Island tomorrow, where Brazilian Reinaldo Varela, winner in the Baltic Sea Cup last month, will be the top seed.
The two drivers who followed him home in Italy are expected to once again pose him his biggest threat. They come in the form of Krystof Holowczyk of Poland and France's Jean-Louis Schlesser.
"The Desert Challenge is very particular," said Schlesser, a six-time winner in the Emirates.
"It is a very strong five-day race; every day you get no rest. This is why it is most difficult, because the dunes are changing all the time, you must have a maximum of concentration, yet you are drained.
"Finding that balance is the key to the race and that is what makes the difference between those who finish first and those at the back."
Follow us @SprtNationalUAE