Colin McRae and four more of the greatest drivers to do the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge

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Gary Meenaghan looks back at some of the biggest names in motorsport who have participated in the Abu Dhabi – originally UAE – Desert Challenge.

Colin McRae

The Scotsman is likely best remembered as the star of video game Colin McRae Rally, which was released in 1998 and is viewed as a pioneer for sports racing games. Son of a five-time British Rally champion, McRae became his country’s first World Rally champion when he won the title in 1995 in a Subaru Impreza 555. He raced in the 2004 UAE Desert Challenge in a Nissan pick-up. In 2007, he was to return and compete against his brother, Alistair, but died in a helicopter crash close to his home in Lanark, Scotland, one month before the event. He was 39.

Ari Vatanen

The Finn won the 1981 World Rally Championship for Rothmans Rally Team in a Ford Escort RS1800. Six years later, he began a remarkable run of Dakar Rally dominance that resulted in him winning four titles in five years between 1987 and 1991. In 1997, on his UAE Desert Challenge debut and alongside co-driver Fred Gallagher, Vatanen won in a Citroen ZX RR.

Stephane Peterhansel

Few people have dominated cross-country rally quite like the Frenchman. Peterhansel holds the record for having taken the most stage wins at the Dakar Rally (65) and has won the race 11 times since 1991. He first raced in Abu Dhabi in 1996, triumphing atop a Yamaha M3 motorbike. Over the course of the next 19 years, he won a further five Desert Challenge titles behind the wheel of a Mitsubishi Pajero, a Mitsubishi Evo and a Mini All4 Racing.

Carlos Sainz

Nobody has competed in more World Rally Championship races than the Spaniard. Sainz, a two-time winner of the WRC drivers’ title, has competed in the Desert Challenge several times over the years without making it on to the top step of the podium. He finished second in 2007, but won the Dakar Rally in 2010 with Volkswagen. His son, Carlos Sainz Jr, is this season competing in Formula One with Toro Rosso.

Jean-Louis Schlesser

A one-time Formula One driver, the Frenchman competed in the 1988 Italian Grand Prix and was blamed for ruining McLaren’s 100 per cent record after colliding with the Brazilian Ayrton Senna. Schlesser switched to sports cars and off-road racing and has won the Desert Challenge six times dating back to 1994, when he competed in his own custom-built Buggy Schlesser. He won the FIA Cross Country Rally World Cup five times from 1998 through to 2002 and the Dakar Rally twice, in 1999 and 2000.