x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Omani pair are ready to tackle the unexpected

Over the next five days, and on separate teams, Nizar al Shanfari and Ahmed al Hajri will fly the flag for the sultanate as they fight their way across some of the harshest and most visually stunning terrain in the Middle East - in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge.

ABU DHABI // Two Omani rally stars are gearing up to take on one of the world's toughest cross-country rallies, the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge.

Over the next five days, and on separate teams, Nizar al Shanfari and Ahmed al Hajri will fly the flag for the sultanate as they fight their way across some of the harshest and most visually stunning terrain in the Middle East.

"Omani participation is very important for the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge," Mohammed ben Sulayem, the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) vice-president for sport and chairman of the Desert Challenge organising committee," explained.

"The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge is one of our region's most important motorsport events and we want our fellow GCC countries to be as proud of it as we are in the UAE.

"We invite our Omani competitors to treat the UAE as a second home, and we hope their intimate knowledge of Gulf geography will help them achieve great results for their countries and this region."

Local knowledge will play a big part for al Shanfari, who is a seasoned rally driver and has made a name for himself over the years in the FIA Middle East Rally Championship (MERC).

In the 1999 MERC season, he finished first in his class and second overall, and repeated the feat the following year to show his consistency.

After shifting his focus to cross-country rallying, he has participated in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge four times, with a second place in the T1 class in 2004 being the highlight.

This year, al Shanfari is determined to do even better, and has been preparing for the extremely demanding event for the past nine months.

He will take on some of the tallest dunes in the world in a Dutch-built Fast and Speed T1 buggy alongside his Qatari co-pilot, Nasr al Kuwari, who also has a wealth of experience from competing in the MERC.

"It's a great feeling to know that I am one of only two Omani participants," al Shanfari said. "The pressure can build up with the responsibility, but I've been training really hard and I'm ready for it.

"You never know what's going to hit you when you're out there, and we've been working on the buggy for a long time, tweaking the engine and suspension settings, so we're confident."

Also waving the Omani flag at this year's competition will be al Hajri, who will navigate for the UAE's Matar al Mansouri in a Nissan Patrol as they tackle some of the toughest terrain on the planet.

The UAE's Yahya Bel Helei has taken part in every race since 1990, achieving a number of wins in both car and motorbike categories over the years.

"For me and many other Emiratis, the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge is the rallying event of the year," Bel Helei said.

"I speak on behalf of my UAE compatriots when I say that we cannot wait to take on the world's best racers for a spot on the podium."