x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge offers type of freedom Sam Sunderland relishes

Dubai resident loves the UAE terrain and is hoping to score wins after move to Red Bull KTM Factory Rally Team

Sam Sunderland led last year’s Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge from start to finish but was given a 10-minute penalty for a technical infringement that relegated him to third. Courtesy Edoardo Bauer
Sam Sunderland led last year’s Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge from start to finish but was given a 10-minute penalty for a technical infringement that relegated him to third. Courtesy Edoardo Bauer

When the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge begins this weekend, one of the biggest hopes for local success will come from an English motorcyclist who has made the UAE his home.

On Saturday, Sam Sunderland will make his competitive debut with the Red Bull KTM Factory Rally Team after signing a three-and-a-half-year contract that saw him move from Honda.

Sunderland, 24, now is part of a team that has won the Dakar Rally 13 times in succession. It is fitting that his first race for them will be the 24th edition of the Desert Challenge, which is the opening round of the 2014 FIM Cross-Country Rallies World Championship.

“I started racing when I was seven years old, in the UK,” Sunderland said. “But my first rally was the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge in 2011.”

On the move to KTM he said: “It’s a great team, very experienced.

“This is a huge opportunity for me to learn from people like Marc [Coma] and the tech people in the team are great, very experienced. This allows me to be relaxed and focused on the racing. It’s important to be confident.”

Sunderland’s confidence will no doubt have been boosted by his performance in January’s Dakar Rally, which took place from Rosario in Argentina to Valparaiso in Chile.

“Obviously, it was pretty tough,” he said. “It’s the biggest race of the year in every sense, in terms of media, budget, teams, sponsors, and it comes around once a year. You need to be prepared.”

The Englishman certainly was and got off to a flying start.

“It went well with Honda and I got my first-ever stage win, which at 24 is huge,” he said. “I was told I was the youngest ever to achieve that, which is a great accomplishment.”

Unfortunately, for him, technical difficulties halted his progress.

“On Day 3, my engine broke, so it was home time,” he said. “That’s racing.”

Still, Sunderland believes time is on his side when it comes to the world’s most famous rally.

“I want to go back and win,” he said. “It’ll be very difficult, but I’m only 24 and now I’m surrounded by people who know how to win.”

Perhaps no one is as used to winning as his new KTM teammate, Coma. The Spaniard has won the Dakar Rally four times and has been crowned FIM world champion on six occasions. He is also a seven-time winner in Abu Dhabi and the current champion.

Already, the experience is rubbing off on Sunderland ahead of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, which he, as a Dubai resident, considers a home event.

“It’s always a great experience to ride here,” he said. “Last year, I led from start to finish but, unfortunately, a technical infringement meant I was deducted a 10-minute penalty and went from first to third.”

The coming week provides him with another chance of success in Abu Dhabi.

“The preparations have gone really well,” he said. “I’ve spent time in Spain training with Marc, and I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life. It’s always very hot so I need to make sure I’m properly hydrated. I’ll be happy when the flag finally drops.”

Sunderland says he has a good chance of winning in Abu Dhabi but that “everything needs to fall into place”

He added: “There are so many factors involved in winning a rally like the Desert Challenge, where you’re riding 10 hours a day for five days.”

Having moved to the UAE five years ago to live with his aunt and uncle, Sunderland gives the impression of someone clearly happy with his surroundings.

“In the summer I try to go to Europe or America to race,” he said “But when I’m here I do triathlons, mountain biking. I also do a fair bit of free diving and fishing.”

But it’s professionally where the environment has dovetailed with his passion. “I love the UAE and the freedom it provides,” he said. “The freedom of the desert is awesome, and I really think it’s one of the last countries in the world where you can use that to do what you want. I wouldn’t have that opportunity if I hadn’t lived here.”

The action starts on Saturday, with the Super Special Stage on Yas Island. On Sunday, the racing moves inland, where Sunderland will have the opportunity to be the king of the desert, too.

akhaled@thenational.ae