The 2005 UAE Desert Challenge pitches man against sand. James Fryer looks on with bucket and spade.
BMW X5, Land Rover Discovery and Mitsubishi Pajero drivers of the UAE take note. You don’t need a huge gas-guzzling beast to get to Spinneys, Mall of the Emirates or the beach. But, it is recommended if you’re planning on tackling sand dunes bigger than a double-decker bus.
November 9 to 14 will see 120 expert drivers and riders from around 30 different countries take to the Arabian sands in a bid to win the 2005 UAE Desert Challenge. Dubai will stage the curtain-raiser for the event as drivers rev their dune-beasts into Dubai International Marine Club to qualify in the two kilometre prologue. A spectator stage on November 9 at 4pm at Ibn Battuta Mall will be the best time for city spectators to catch a glimpse of the modified super machines. The following day is the official start when leg one begins from Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi and drivers take a deep breath, or at least a good few gulps of water, and head south into the desert.
Each of the five racing days will see 350 kilometres of sand pass under the competitors’ 4x4, motorbike or truck wheels in a cross between Wacky Races and The Gumball Rally. At the end of each day the vehicles will all return to this year’s base, the ‘Bivouac’ – located at Moreeb Hill in Liwa. And while the official routes are kept secret until shortly before each stage in a bid to avoid any cheating, we do know that the official finish and prize giving ceremonies will occur on the afternoon of Monday, November 14 back at Dubai International Marine Club.
Most of the action will take place across the Abu Dhabi emirate, and while some areas are touched by the moist winds from the Gulf and prove relatively ‘easy’ to tackle, drivers may end up reaching for the bucket and spade if they find themselves sunk into drier, softer sands. And as if negotiating an inhospitable wasteland isn’t enough, the competitors will also have to contend with some of the most unforgiving conditions known to man. By day the sun beats down and temperatures soar. By night the racers will be needing their hot water bottles and winter woollies when temperatures can drop below freezing. In the late 1990s one Japanese rider went missing in the desert, but later turned up at a Pizza Hut on the coast highway. Thankfully the event now incorporates satellite tracking to monitor racers, and make sure they don’t slip off for a slice of deep-pan.
All classes of contenders will be hoping to survive the endurance race through to the bitter end. In the auto category a determined Stéphane Peterhansel will be seeking his third Desert Challenge victory in four years, for what team Mitsubishi hope will be a hat trick of Dakar Rally triumphs two months later. And while Arab drivers will be preparing to share the world stage with the major forces in international cross-country rallying, this year’s home-grown talent comes in the form of the UAE’s Damas Rally Team pairing Tamjid Abdullah and Yazan Rijleh in a Mitsubishi Evolution and Sadiq Fadhal and Imad Nablan in a Toyota Landcruiser. A group of Abu Dhabi-based French expatriates are also worth keeping an eye out for – they have entered the event as the Fitech Rally Team for the last six years and have some impressive performances under their belts.
The two-wheeled moto contenders to watch out for include Spanish rider Marc Coma – firm favourite to succeed Norway’s Pål Anders Ullevålseter who clinched the world title in last year’s Desert Challenge, whereas the truck category has been dominated by Minnikhanov in his goliath Kamaz 4911 for the past three years.
The event first began in 1991 as a one-day, four-wheel-drive rally involving a small group of around 30 motor sport enthusiasts and volunteers within the UAE. It was accepted into the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) in 1993, and has developed year-on-year to become one of the most important rounds of the FIA series – the penultimate round of the FIA World Cup. A motorcycle category was first introduced in 1995 and has run alongside the FIA event ever since. In the late 1990s trucks were added to the already huge caravan of desert vehicles.
Whether preferring to sit on a saddle or behind the wheel, the event attracts the cream of the off-road rallying crop from around the world, and is a spectacular event that should not be missed. Thanks goes to Mohammed Ben Sulayem, the creator and driving force behind the event. He boasts a motorsport career stretching back to the early 1980s, with an impressive collection of 14 FIA titles and an unparalleled knowledge of the UAE’s desert – incomparable credentials. Major local corporate sponsorship now comes from the likes of Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, Nissan Middle East, Dubai Waterfront and Immarsat. The next time you’re clambering into your 4x4, consider unleashing the true potential harnessed in your mean machine.
The desert beckons, and applications for next year’s race will soon be open if you’re ready for a challenge. All you’ll need is a suitable vehicle and the Dhs5,200 entrance fee.
UAE Desert Challenge 2005, November 9 to 14. Tel: (04) 42669922, www.uaedesertchallenge.com.