Dakar Rally bikes champion Sam Sunderland will be among the 72 riders and drivers set to take part in the new Dubai International Baja this weekend.
Sunderland, who is based in Dubai and became the first British winner of the Dakar Rally in January, will line up with 37 other riders from 12 countries, according to the entry list released by the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE (ATCUAE) on Monday.
Poland’s Aron Domzala and co-driver Szymon Gospodarczyk, who lead the FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies after last week’s opening round victory in Russia, are among 34 crews representing 15 nations battling for honours in the cars category through the dunes and sabkha plains of the Al Qudra Desert.
Forming the second round of this year’s FIA World Cup series for cars and buggies, the Dubai International Baja is also the opening round of the FIM Bajas World Cup for bikes and quads and is a key part of ATCUAE plans to create a bright new future for rallying.
“We’re very happy with the size and quality of entries in the first year and this is something that we’ll build on,” said Mohammed Ben Sulayem, President of the ATCUAE and the Emirates Motor Sport Federation.
“We’re reversing the trend in recent years for competitor numbers in rallying to fall away dramatically, and the support of partners like AW Rostamani and Nissan Middle East for the Dubai International Baja gives a strong boost to our plans to ensure the sport is sustainable in the years ahead.
“The baja format is more desert friendly and affordable compared with traditional rallying, and by being open to buggies, bikes and quads as well as cars appeals to a much wider range of competitors.”
The Dubai International Baja will be the first competitive for Sunderland since his Dakar Rally triumph, however he insisted he will be ready when he takes his place on the start line.
“It will be great to be racing again as I haven’t done much since Dakar to be honest,” Sunderland, 29, said. “But I’m having a lot of bike time before the baja and will definitely be ready for it. I don’t race unless I’m fully prepared and I will be.”
Following the Dubai International Baja, Sunderland will head to the capital for the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, taking place April 1-7, which is part of a three-round World Cup swing through the Middle East culminating in Qatar’s Sealine Cross Country Rally April 16-21.
Meanwhile, top Emirati rider Mohammd Al Balooshi will be aiming to make his mark in Dubai, as will another locally-based Brit, Dave McBride, winner of the bikes title in December’s World Cup candidate event.
After his World Cup first round success in the snow and ice of the northern Russian forests, Domzala faces a tough examination in the Al Qudra desert.
Among his biggest rivals for the cars title are Qatar’s two-time Dakar Rally winner Nasser Al Attiyah, the UAE’s Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi, and Russia’s double Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge winner and 2015 World Cup champion Vladimir Vasilyev.
Czech driver Miroslav Zapletal, Dutchman Erik Van Loon, the 2015 Desert Challenge runner up, and Frenchman Ronan Chabot are also involved.
The 14 Emirati and UAE-based drivers competing include Ahmed Al Maqoodi who won the candidate event staged in Dubai in December that led to the rally being added to this year’s World Cup calendar.
He will be partnered by 2012 Desert Challenge quads champion Obaid Al Kitbe.
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