ABU DHABI // It is not too much of a surprise to hear that Leonid Novitskiy is extremely fond of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge when you consider his history in the event.
The Russian started his defence of the title he won last year at the special stage at Marina Mall in the capital on Saturday.
But it is the fact this is where his successful endurance rallying career began, along with it taking place on his favourite surface, that ensure the 42 year old enjoys coming back to Abu Dhabi.
"This is one of my favourite races," he said.
"I started my international and professional careers here in 2005 and from this time I love this race and taking part it in it.
"I finished fourth in my first attempt and I have loved competing here ever since.
"The event provides a lot of sand, which is my favourite surface, and it is always a challenge to compete out here.
"The race is getting better every year and they are increasing the quality of it each time. It really is one of my favourite races in the world.
"It is always popular with the drivers as we stay in one place thanks to the layout of the event and there is no distractions at having to move from site to site and staying in a different hotel every night, so we get to relax and concentrate on racing as hard as we can, which is the way it should be.
Novitskiy and Andreas Schulz, his German co-pilot, are strongly fancied to repeat last year's success, where they won by more than five hours, and they will be competing in a diesel-engine BMW X3CC, run by the BMW X-Raid team.
The man from Cheliabinsk has fully recovered from a broken wrist he suffered in the Dakar Rally in January, and he is confident of his chances of standing on top of the podium when the honours are handed out on Thursday evening at the Yas Marina Circuit.
"This year the race will be quite interesting as they have changed the track and it will be very difficult because of the high standard of competitors at the front of the field," he said.
"I expect a very tough fight at the front as it is such a strong field that they have got for this year's event, but I am confident I can challenge for the victory."
This is the 20th staging of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge and it is also doubling as the second round of the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) Cross Country Rally World Cup, as well as the opening round of the Federation Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM) Cross Country Rallies World Championship.
Novitskiy has already got off to a good start in the FIA Cross Country World Cup, finishing in second place in last month's opening round in Italy, to leave him in contention for a push for the title.
Novitskiy has not had the ideal preparation for the event because of injury, but with 1,500 kilometres of desert to be driven through, competitors need to be fighting fit just to be able to try and take part the event, let alone be successful in it.
"During the year we have special training," he said. "We have a special programme, a team one, assigned by our physiotherapist, with it being slightly different for each driver.
"We spend a lot of time on physical training, walking, running and gym work, but working on specific areas to ensure we are as fit as we can be when we get in the car.
"We spend the time before the Dakar Rally at high altitudes to allow us to get used to competing with low pressure of the air, and then there is of course day-to-day gym work as well."
"It [endurance rallying] is a very demanding event and you cannot afford to get tired as you need to be fully alert to avoid making any mistakes. One wrong move in the desert can cost you huge amounts of time or even end your event."
Novitskiy made a solid start to his charge on yesterday's first leg, finishing the opening 290km stage in second place, seven minutes behind France's Stephane Peterhansel, the leader in his Mini All4 Racing car for Team X-Raid in the car/truck category of the competition.
Mansoor Bel Helei, the Emirati driver, finished the stage in 10th place in his Nissan Patrol.
In the bikes competition, Marc Coma, the Spanish rider, opened up a lead of three minutes 52 seconds over Helder Rodrigues, the Portuguese competitor.
Today's second leg sees the drivers and riders tackle a challenging 285km stage.