x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Flying start for racers

The focus of the cross country rallying world switches from Dubai to Abu Dhabi and the Rub Al Khali as the UAE Desert Challenge begins in earnest.

Francisco Lopez takes to the sky as he goes over a jump in the Super Special Stage of the UAE Desert Challenge in Jebel Ali. The event begins today in Abu Dhabi, with the first stage starting at the Emirates Palace.
Francisco Lopez takes to the sky as he goes over a jump in the Super Special Stage of the UAE Desert Challenge in Jebel Ali. The event begins today in Abu Dhabi, with the first stage starting at the Emirates Palace.

The focus of the cross country rallying world switches from Dubai to Abu Dhabi and the Rub Al Khali today as the UAE Desert Challenge begins in earnest, with a cluster of world titles at stake over the next five days. After the super special stage yesterday, which gave spectators a ringside view of the action at Jebel Ali, the event starts officially from the Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi at 9.30am.

The action at Jebel Ali yesterday saw the team of Nasser Al Attiyah and Tina Thorner set the fastest time by a car in their BMW. The fastest bike time was set by Ruben Faria on his Honda bike. He was two seconds quicker than Helder Rodrigues. Ahead for the 115 prototype cars, modified 4WD vehicles, trucks, bikes and quads lies five days of desert driving in the penultimate round of both the FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies and the FIM Cross Country Rallies World Championship.

Spain's Marc Coma, bidding for a hat-trick of Desert Challenge bikes victories, will be the first rider to be flagged away by Mohammed Ben Sulayem, President of the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE and the rally creator. Coma will be followed by French star Cyril Despres, his KTM team-mate and four-times winner in the UAE who again poses the biggest threat to the Spaniard With the cars following the bikes away, top-seeded Al-Attiyah, Qatar's reigning FIA Middle East Rally champion, will be the first of 40 drivers to leave the starting ramp. He sets off in his new BMW X3 in pursuit of the World Cup crown, and is also aiming to become the first Arab winner of the event since fellow Qatari Saeed Al Hajri in 1993.

While new regulations this year exclude Coma, Despres and other KTM works riders from the World Championship, five FIM world titles will be decided by developments over the next five days. Two of those titles seem certain to go to Poland, as Marek Dabrowski is in line for the over 450cc production class crown, compatriot Jacek Czachor should clinch the 450cc production title, while the Italian rider Oscar Polli has a four-point advantage in the 450cc Rally Sport battle going into this week's racing

After the ceremonial start beside the Emirates Palace, the first competitive section, the 281-km Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority Special Stage 1, gets under way at 10.35am behind the UAE Air Force base at Mafraq. Over the following three days the rally breaks out into the Empty Quarter, a region characterised by towering dunes presenting competitors with plenty of challenges to endure. Early morning starts bring the 296-km Nakheel Special Stage Two tomorrow, the 340-km Nissan Special Stage Three on Wednesday and Thursday's 314-km ADNOC Special Stage Four.

The final leg on Friday sees the 118-km Hertz Special Stage Five leading to the 166-km Emarat Special Stage Six ahead of the 4.30pm finish at the Dubai International Marine Club. sports@thenational.ae