Abu Dhabi, 3 March 2023- The President of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), Mohammed Ben Sulayem, returned to familiar territory this week when he visited teams and officials at the Bivouac for this year’s Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge.
Founded in 1991 by Ben Sulayem, a 14-time FIA Middle East Rally Champion and the winner of 61 International rallies from 1993 to 2002, the event is the second round of the new World Rally-Raid Championship after the Dakar. It’s widely regarded as one of the world’s toughest endurance marathons with its challenges of towering sand dunes and baking heat in the remote UAE deserts.
“I always say never underestimate the dunes of Abu Dhabi in the UAE because 250 kilometres out there in the dunes is equal to perhaps 700 kilometres in the old Dakar,”Ben Sulayem, a former Chairman of the Organising Committee said.
“This part of the world is very demanding not only on the cars and bikes, but also on the driver, rider and the co-driver, on the service technicians, the engineers and also the organizers because it is so remote. So I say well done to them all. I’m always here, I am from the desert so I understand it and how tough it can be and I wish them a very safe event.”
Recent Dakar winner and four-time Desert Challenge victor, Nasser Al Attiyah from Qatar was hopeful of repeating his Saudi win in the UAE until he crashed heavily on the third stage rolling his Toyota Hilux in the dunes. This allowed Prodrive’s Sebastian Loeb and co-driver Fabian Lurquin to close on the leaders with their Bahrain-backed Team BRX Hunter, cutting Al Attiyah’s lead of 27 minutes and three seconds down to just 48 seconds by the end of the day. However, despite crawling back to the finish line, the Qatari retired from the event after his team assessed the damage to his car.
Ben Sulayem met with Toby Moody of Team BRX moments before the drama unfolded, giving thanks also to the organisers as he spoke with Najwa Bali, the event manager for the Emirates Motorsport Organisation (EMSO) and Mahir Badri, the CEO of the EMSO, the organiser of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge.
“This event is a part of my life. Being the founder of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge when the trials were there in the early days to make it what it is today, it means a lot to me personally. To see something that I invested more than 30 years of my life and during the hard times and good times and meeting the challenges that came with it, is incredibly satisfying. To see what Mahir Badri and his team at the EMSO have done here is remarkable and I’ll always be attached to it.”
The FIA W2RC ran for the first time last year and the series has expanded from four to five rounds as a result of the success of the inaugural championship. From here the Championship goes to Mexico and Argentina for the first time after a successful Middle East stint in Saudi Arabia for the Dakar and Abu Dhabi.
“Having the sponsorship and support from the likes of ADNOC and the Abu Dhabi Sport Council is very important for any sport and I had good discussions here with Saeed Al Muhairi, the Qualitative Sports Department Director at the Abu Dhabi Sport Council to see how we can keep improving this event for Abu Dhabi, for the UAE and for World Rallying.
“My visit is not only about the event itself, it is also about the overall championship that I’m pushing with the team to make sure it keeps growing. We cannot only have the birth, we have to take care of this newborn baby and nurture it into a full-sized championship worthy of being classified as the seventh world championship to run under the governance of the FIA,” he said.
After the Sonora Rally in Mexico and Argentina’s Desafio Ruta 40 at the end of August the W2RC will complete its season with the Rallye du Maroc in North Africa.