ABU DHABI // Entries for the newly-named Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge may be down on recent years, but event founder, Mohammed Ben Sulayem, has taken a personal interest in ensuring that the five-day race is well-attended. "Everyone is suffering in this economic climate," said Ben Sulayem, FIA Vice-President for Sport, President, Automobile and Touring Club UAE and Chairman of the Organising Committee, who took the tough decision to move the Challenge from its traditional November date to March 22 due to clashes with Abu Dhabi's maiden Formula One meeting.
Used during its 18-year history by the biggest names in rally as a warm-up for the Dakar Rally, normally held in January, the re-scheduling means top manufacturers may now be less likely to field a team. Numbers have also been affected by the economic downturn, with other car makers pulling out of motorsports altogether. The March 5 closing date for the event was extended to encourage more entries.
"I had to prioritise and F1 is the pinnacle of motorsport," explained Ben Sulayem. "The FIA and the ATCUAE has so many events that we can't have the staff working on two at around the same time. "The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge is very important to us though and perhaps March is not the best time but we have to do what we can and we will do everything possible to make the event a success." Ben Sulayem, the father of motorsport in the UAE and 14-time Middle East Rally Champion, sees this year's Challenge as a time to lay foundations for future growth.
"All rallies have smaller entry lists and we are not different," he said. "We have to lay the groundwork this year. "But I have not sat in my office and worried about this, I have gone knocking on doors. Me or a member of my team has called every person on our list and we have 32 cars and 46 bikes confirmed. We think that is a great achievement." Those numbers, said Ben Sulayem, include a team from high-profile manufacturer BMW and the world-beating bikes, KTM and, possibly, Mitsubishi, which had announced its withdrawal from rallies earlier this year. Exact entries are expected to be known on Sunday.
Now, as the first stop on the FIA World Cup and FIM Cross-Country Rallies World Championship instead of the last, the Challenge kicks off a season that will be much changed from previous years. "Motorsport is always affected last by financial matters, which means that the recovery will be last," said Ben Sulayem. "But I am taking a personal interest in the health of the challenge." While big manufacturers may find 2009 a tough year to muster the finances for rallying, the Challenge, under the new support from Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, does offer an opportunity for smaller, private teams this year.
Among them is UAE-based Briton, David Mabbs, who will drive a modified FJ Cruiser while Team Saluki are back for another crack at the podium. firstname.lastname@example.org