ABU DHABI // Two-time defending Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge auto champion Vladimir Vasilyev has a dream. It is a difficult one, but the Russian is hoping to become only the second driver in the 26-year history of the gruelling rally to win three titles on the trot.
The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, the second round of the 2016 FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies and the opening round of this year’s FIM Cross Country Rallies World Championship, gets underway Saturday with a Super Special Spectator Stage at Al Forsan International Sports Resort.
The powerful line-up of 166 competitors from 36 countries will then head into Rub Al Khali, the world’s largest continuous sand desert, on Sunday for five days of driving on the deceptively calm dunes before returning to the Yas Marina Circuit for the finish on April 7.
“We are really happy to be here again, chasing our dreams,” said Vasilyev, with his co-driver Konstantin Zhilstov acting as translator.
“Every year, a lot of very good drivers come to this famous, and really difficult and interesting race. So, yes, it will be really difficult for us to win a third in a row.
“We know only one driver, Jean-Louis Schlesser, has done it and it will be great pleasure for us to do the same.”
Frenchman Schlesser won three titles in a row between 1999 and 2001, but with two different co-drivers. Zhilstov, who won the title with Schlesser in 2012 as well, will be making his third consecutive appearance in the co-driver’s seat alongside Vasilyev.
The Russian, however, will be wary of the challenge posed by two-time Dakar Rally winner Nasser Al Attiyah in the 62-strong auto category. The UAE’s Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi heads a strong 18-car Emirati contingent in the category.
“Being from Abu Dhabi and being chairman of Abu Dhabi Racing, it’s a very important event for me and I am proud to be participating in my hometown,” Sheikh Khalid said. “Yes, I am not a cross country driver – I had my first even last year – but it was challenging for me. For sure, it was very difficult the first couple of days.
“So it’s a new challenge, especially this year, because I have switched to the Mini. Of course, it’s a very competitive car, but it’s a different car to what I have been driving. This is also the first time I am driving a diesel car.”
Another Emirati hoping to make a big impression on home soil is Mohammed Al Balooshi, the fourth seed in the moto category.
After two successive sixth-place finishes, Al Balooshi is keen to win at least one stage, but knows his task will not be easy as the 42-rider field in the includes the 2016 Dakar champion, Australia’s Toby Price, and the Dubai-based British rider Sam Sunderland, who is the top seed ahead of Chile’s Pablo Quintanilla.
“I’ve had three stage wins in Egypt, but none in my home event yet and I want to put that right,” Al Balooshi said.
“If I can win one stage, that will be a dream come true in my own country.
“It’s a really demanding task ahead – it’s called desert challenge not without reason. It is really challenging, but I am looking forward to it.”
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