x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Desert dunes test world's best drivers

More than 100 modified racing vehicles took part in the event in the Empty Quarter as drivers ploughed through the rustic red dunes.

Marc Coma crests a dune in the Empty Quarter yesterday during the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, where he took first place in the Moto category.
Marc Coma crests a dune in the Empty Quarter yesterday during the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, where he took first place in the Moto category.

LIWA // The Russian Leonid Novitskiy of team X-Raid was crowned victorious in the auto category of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge last night. More than 100 modified racing vehicles took part in the event in the Empty Quarter as drivers ploughed through the rustic red dunes. Although it is often said that winning isn't everything, it is especially true deep in the Liwa desert. The motivation for many of the drivers here is simply to do battle with, and ultimately overcome, some of the harshest terrain in the world.

Maurice Doreleijers, a Dutchman competing alongside his American race partner Michael Zeigler in a four-wheel drive, said: "It's the challenge; we come here for the challenge. If it was easy, we wouldn't want to do it." In 2009, the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority rebranded the competition, known for 18 years as the UAE Desert Challenge. Mohammed ben Sulayem, the president of the UAE Automobile and Touring Car Club, said at the time he hoped the event would become the world's best. According to Doreleijers, the plans are on track.

The annual 15-day Dakar Rally is widely regarded as the most demanding endurance contest in the world, yet Doreleijers said many of the drivers proclaim their five days in Abu Dhabi to be a more severe test. "They say it is even tougher than Paris to Dakar," he says. "This is phenomenally hard. You need to be on top of your game the entire time and there is no room for error. The heat, dunes, the drops; it's just so tough. It's just nasty - really nasty."

But it is not only drivers who turn out annually; 75 to 100 marshals volunteer to work long shifts covering the checkpoints. The post chief David Venables and his wife, Sandra, have been working at the Desert Challenge for 16 years. "Only Mohammed ben Sulayem has been doing this for longer," Mr Venables said with a smile. The Venables recalled a scene in 1994, when Russia's Kamaz trucks made their debut in the desert and their drivers greeted every female marshal with a red rose.

"That was nice," Mrs Venables said. "We love it anyway, but it's things like that which make it special." gmeenaghan@thenational.ae