Next week's UAE Desert Challenge could be the "most exciting" in the event's history, with an array of rallying talent in action and several world titles to be decided, according to its founder Mohammed ben Sulayem. The 18th edition of the event has attracted more than 160 competitors from 36 countries.
It is the final round of both the FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies for cars and trucks and the FIM Cross Country Rallies World Championship for bikes. Sulayem, who is also president of the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE, said: "We have a fantastic line-up of drivers and riders from around the world, it could be one of the most competitive and exciting that we've seen. "It takes a big team effort to make it all happen.
"We've been preparing for this virtually since last year's rally finished and can't wait for it to get under way." The six-day event will cover 2,197km and starts with a super special stage in Jebel Ali on Sunday afternoon. The rally will then have its ceremonial start from the Emirates Palace hotel in Abu Dhabi at 9.30am on Monday. Four demanding special stages, centred around Moreeb Hill near the Liwa oasis, follow before two more stages lead to the finish at the Dubai International Marine Club on Friday.
This year's event will be missing drivers like the four-time champion Stephane Peterhansel, the 2006 winner Luc Alphand and Carlos Sainz due to the decision to switch the Dakar Rally to Argentina and Chile in January. The logistical problems of taking part in both the events forced the Mitsubishi, Volkswagen and BMW teams to change their plans. The absence of champion Peterhansel and Alphand has thrown the final round of the FIA Cross Country Rally World Cup and the FIM Cross Country Rallies World Championship wide open.
"It would be a nightmare for the factory teams to compete here before going on to South America. But they'll be back here next year for sure. None of them want to miss the Desert Challenge," said Sulayem. "While we don't have some of the top professional teams this time, we'll have one of the biggest entries in recent years and, ironically, it could be the most competitive Desert Challenge, with no obvious favourites."
Sulayem predicted the unusual look to the competition could see an Arab driver on the top of the podium for the first time since 1993. The Emirati Mohammed Mattar won the first two events after the 1991 launch, while Qatar's former Middle East rally champion Saeed al Hajri won the title the following year. There are a number of contenders who could change that anomaly, with the Middle East Rally champion Nasser al Attiyah favourite to emulate his fellow Qatari Hajri.