Al Helei on the trail of more home success while fellow Emiratis Al Kitbe, Al-Zarouni both aim for quads title

Abu Dhabi, UAE, 6 April, 2013: Trying to pick a winner in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge is as difficult as the event itself, and that fact will not be lost on Jean-Louis Schlesser and Marc Coma as they chase another place in the record books over the next five days.

Schlesser, defending champion in the cars category, and Coma, who has dominated the bikes class for the last four years, have each scored six victories overall in the UAE’s classic cross country rally and both fancy their chances of going one better this week.

The Frenchman and the Spaniard know, however, that the task ahead of them is supremely tough, with so much powerful international competition in a starting line-up of 49 drivers and 51 riders, and a multitude of potential complications awaiting along a 2000-km route.

This begins in earnest tomorrow (Sunday) morning with the start of the first of five demanding desert tests, the 299 km Abu Dhabi Motorsport Management Stage, following this afternoon’s super special attraction on Yas Island.

Both have suffered setbacks over the years in an event which has left the hopes of many illustrious challengers buried among the sabka plains and towering dunes in the UAE’s spectacularly beautiful Western Region of Al Garbia.

Of the 49 drivers tackling the 23rd edition of the Desert Challenge, few foreigners can rival Schlesser for the way he is able to adapt to UAE conditions, something he has been doing with great success ever since his first win in the event back in 1994.

He won it again 12 months later, scored three more successive victories between 1999 and 2001, and just when it seemed he would have to settle for five wins before surely calling it a day, he returned last year at the age of 63 to win it again. He is back once more with Russian co-driver Konstantin Zhilstov alongside him in his easily recognisable Sonangol Buggy.

“Jean-Louis is a great friend of the Desert Challenge and a great character, and we’re always pleased to welcome him back to the UAE where he has enjoyed so much success,” said Dr. Mohammed Ben Sulayem, President of the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE, the rally organisers, and founder of the event.

“Can he win it again? I know he thinks he can. While he has a lot of much younger drivers out to beat him, some times there is no substitute for experience, and he has more of that than anyone else in the rally.”

The 2013 Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge is taking place under the patronage of H.H.Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Ruler's Representative in the Western Region.

The event’s high-profile line-up of strategic partners and supporters includes the Diwan of the Ruler’s Representative for the Western Region, Abu Dhabi Motorsport Management, Nissan, ADNOC, Abu Dhabi Aviation and Qasr Al Sarab Resort by Anantara.

The Desert Challenge is the second round of the FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies, and Schlesser’s biggest rivals this week could again be the two men who finished ahead of him in Italy’s opening round last month, Brazilian Reinaldo Varela in a Mitsubishi Pajero and Poland’s Krystof Holowczyk in a Mini.

Another potential winner is the Spanish driver Nani Roma, team-mate of Holowczyk in a second mini, who was one of the leading prospects in 2007 but was forced to retire because of severe stomach illness.

 Coma, reigning FIM Cross-Country Rallies world champion, was barely two years old when Schlesser shared the French Formula Three title with four-times former F1 world champion Alain Prost in 1978.

The dashing Spaniard, now one of the world’s most mature and accomplished riders, begins the opening round of this year’s FIM World Championship as the top seed and strong favourite to win the Desert Challenge bikes crown again.

He too is taking nothing for granted though, particularly with the next three seeds, Polish KTM team-mate, Jakub Przygonski, Portugal’s Paul Goncalves and Spain’s Joan Barreda, all quality performers looking to steal the show.

While the ever present Yahya Al Helei targets another T2 production class success in his trusty Nissan Patrol, the UAE’s best chance of outright success lies in the quads category where Obaid Al Kitbe defends his title, and fellow-Emirati Atif Al-Zarouni tries to follow on from his victory in the recent Hail International cross country rally in Saudi Arabia. Khalid Al Falasi, meanwhile will also be competing in the bikes class on a Honda CRF 450X.



Sunday 7th April Leg 1

  • Abu Dhabi Motorsport Management SS 1 (299 km): Starts at 09:00 from Razeen, 50 kms south of Al Faya
  • SS 1 Service at PC 1 (W/point N23 35.125/E54 33.390) is on the pipeline. Access from Al Dhafrah road near ADNOC, at White Sands grocery store. This store is 62.60km south after leaving the coastal highway (E11) at Exit 306. Access is via 18 kms of hard track, First Moto competitor due at approximately 1015hrs.
  • SS 1 Finish (Waypoint N22 50.048/E54 24.873) is on the road leading South East from the Bivouac at Qasr Al Sarab – first competitor due at approximately 1215hrs.