The stage is set for a classic cross country rally weekend as the Dubai International Baja powered by AW Rostamani and Nissan sends a powerful international force of drivers and riders into action in the Al Qudra desert.
Taking place under the patronage of H.H. Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Crown Prince of Dubai, the third edition of the event is the second round of the 2019 FIA World Cup for Cross Country Bajas for cars and buggies and the opening round of this year’s FIM Bajas World Cup for bikes and quads.
Top-seeded UAE driver Khalid Al Qassimi, partnered by French navigator Xavier Panseri, will lead a 34 vehicle line-up away from the ceremonial start at Dubai Autodrome at 18:00 on Thursday.
With fellow Emirati Mohammed Al Balooshi, the defending FIM World Cup and Dubai Baja champion, seeded No1 among 55 riders, the rally begins on Thursday morning among the Al Qudra desert dunes and salt flats.
Lying ahead in a route totalling 607.11km in length is a special stage of 201.6km which is extended to 204.93km on the following morning before the survivors return to Dubai Autodrome for the official finish at 17:00.
“As the rally organisers we’re happy to have such a strong entry both in terms of numbers and quality,” said Mahir Badri, general manager of the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE.
“It more than justifies our decision in recent years to switch to the Baja rally format which attracts a wider range of competitors.”
Al Qassimi, whose hopes of a cars victory last year were ruined by a first stage mechanical failure, faces a succession of world-class challengers. They include the 2018 winner and world champion, Poland’s Jakub Przygonski, as well as last year’s runners-up, Russia’s Vladimir Vasilyev.
Meanwhile, Czech driver Martin Prokop will be looking to add to his success in last year’s Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge.
Other top overseas contenders include Polish driver Bartlomiej Boba as well as Miroslav Zapletal.
Also carrying the UAE flag will be Al Qassimi’s brother, Abdullah, alongside British co-driver Steve Lancaster, as well as Emiratis Mansoor Al Helei and Khalid Al Kendi.
Al Balooshi faces another strong challenge from UAE-based French rider Benjamin Melot, runner up for the last two years, with Italian rider Manuel Lucchese and UAE-based Richard Brewer looking to build on their fourth and fifth places last year.
India’s Aishwarya Pissay, the only woman rider in the field, makes only her second international appearance after crashing in Spain last year and rupturing her pancreas.
Relishing his return to action in Dubai will be Kuwait’s Fahad Al Musallam who will be aiming to complete a hat-trick of quads triumphs.
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Considering the highly developed motorsport infrastructure of the UAE, it is no surprise the country has got so much more to its merits than just its unique architecture and various tourist attractions.
The terrain and thriving car culture of the Emirates offers a dream like no other to petrol heads the world over and has become a hub for motorsport, particularly for rallying.
The current landscape of the sport offers interesting opportunities for rally teams to make vital contributions in putting UAE rallying on the map and one such team is Sabertooth Motoring Adventure.
The company was founded by Thomas Bell in 2017, who runs it alongside his co-driver and managing director Patrick McMurren.
The Dubai-based duo represented UAE at the 2018 Dakar Rally, a famous 7000km race across South American desert.
Speaking to Sport360 recently, McMurren said it was a magical experience to compete in motorsport’s toughest race.
“It was an epic adventure, it was everything we hoped for and more,” he said. “Thomas (Bell) was the driver of the car while I was the navigator. It really tested us to the absolute limit, in terms of our endurance.
“We dealt with all sorts of adventures, from the car rolling and having a road accident to sleeping two nights in the desert, but even after all of this I am delighted to report that we did incredibly well in getting to the finish – only half of the cars actually finished.
“It was just an incredible adventure that we made the most of and now we are just happy to be back in the UAE.”
The Englishman was interested in rallying from a young age and used to run around with an imaginary steering wheel in his hand. Now as an adult, he is extremely proud to be associated with the sport.
The sport is ever-evolving and according to McMurren, one of the biggest challenges involved is the terrain, which can be tricky and difficult to navigate.
Bell and McMurren have got exciting things in pipeline for Sabertooth Motoring Adventure, both from a sporting and commercial perspective.
“There are two main prongs of the direction in which we are going in. The first one is to compete at a very high level and the second part of this is to build a business,” he said.
“We are in a unique position, where we have an incredible resource of vehicles and we have the ability to impart that knowledge to other people.
“The business will be evolving and creating more corporate entertainment opportunities, giving people a chance to sit in the navigator seat of a rally car as Tom drives you and you get to have a first-hand rallying experience.”
Bell and McMurren will be seen participating in the 2019 Dubai International Baja powered by Nissan and AW Rostamani next month, where they will be bidding for another impressive finish in the Nissan Navara which saw them secure sixth place last year.
Watch Patrick McMurren give some valuable insight into his rally car, Nissan Navara T1.
Abu Dhabi Racing and Peugeot Middle East official driver Sheikh Khalid bin Faisal Al Qassimi finished eighth in Wednesday’s stage 11 of the Dakar Rally to hold on to his overall seventh position in the standings.
Held in the Belen-Fiambala-Chilecito section in Argentina, stage 11 of the rally comprised of a total distance of 747km with a special section of 280 km.
Sheikh Khalid, along with his co-driver Xavier Panseri, suffered a broken suspension on their Peugeot 3008 DKR Maxi just 50km into the stage but was able to negotiate the stage where the terrain varied between sand dunes, loose soil and vegetation after inspecting the damage.
Aiming to improve his overall ranking, Sheikh Khalid’s progress was slightly hampered by the delay but he drove with determination in an attempt to make up for the lost time.
Following the results, the Emirati driver hoped to make the most of the last two remaining days of the rally.
Sheikh Khalid said: “We started well with the top cars and posted some surprising times. However, the rough roads led to the impact on the rear suspension during the first few kilometres of the stage.
“My co-driver and I inspected the damage to the car and decided to continue the rally in order to reach the service area.
“We drove about 257km with a broken suspension and lost valuable time, but thank God we are still among the top-ten maintaining our seventh position in the overall rankings.
“I must thank the boys at PH Sport for the amazing job they are doing on maintaining the car and preparing a very competitive vehicle.
“Two days and the rally ends and I hope the best for us.”
Dutchman Bernhard Ten Brinke of Toyota was the winner of the stage followed by three Team Peugeot-Total drivers in Cyril Despres, Carlos Sainz and Stéphane Peterhansel and Nasser Al-Attiyah respectively.
Rally leader Sainz maintained a 50-minute advantage over team-mate Peterhansel in the overall standings following the results in Stage 11.
Meanwhile, UAE’s Mohammed Balooshi climbed to 29th in the overall bikes category in a field of 86 riders.