Ben Sulayem: This year we are witnessing a stronger and more international participation that fits the rally




The UAE’s Khalid Al Qassimi will start as favourite to land the cars title in next month’s Dubai International Baja powered by Nissan and AW Rostamani, but he faces major opposition in an event drawing a world-class line-up of Middle East and overseas competitors.

Partnered by French co-driver Xavier Panseri in his Peugeot Abu Dhabi Racing Team 3008 DKR, Al Qassimi is the top seeded driver in the second round of the 2019 FIA World Cup for Cross Country Bajas for cars and buggies.

Heading the bikes seedings in the event which also forms the opening round of this year’s FIM Bajas World Cup for bikes and quads is Mohammed Al Balooshi, the UAE’s reigning world champion and winner in Dubai last year.

The two top Emirati contenders are among an impressive international assembly of 115 competitors from 25 countries in the official entry list issued today by the Automobile and Touring Club for the UAE (ATCUAE), the rally organisers.

Among Al Qassimi’s main challengers will be last year’s winner, Poland’s Jakub Przygonski, this time partnered by German co-driver Timo Gottschalk in a MINI John Cooper, and the 2018 runners-up, Russia’s Vladimir Vasilyev and Konstantin Zhiltsov in a Toyota Hillux Overdrive.

Second seed in the 30-car entry and looking to follow on from last year’s Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge triumph, and fourth place in Dubai, is Czech driver Martin Prokop accompanied by Jan Tomanek in a Ford Raptor RS Cross Country.

Other top overseas contenders include Polish driver Bartlomiej Bobaand Finland’sTapio Suominen in the Toyota Hilux which they took to an opening round third place in the frozen forests of Northern Russia, and Miroslav Zapletal and Marek Sykora who finished fourth in that event in a Ford F150 Evo.

Among the crews aiming to make their mark for the host country are Al Qassimi’s brother, Abdullah Al Qassimi alongside British co-driver Steve Lancaster in a Toyota Hilux, as well as Emiratis Mansoor Al Helei and Khalid Al Kendi in the Nissan Pick-up which took them to fifth place last year.

Mohammed Ben Sulayem, President of the ATCUAE and FIA Vice President for Sport, said: “We’re delighted with the number and overall quality of entries. The switch from conventional rallying to the Baja format was made to take the sport forward, and this event goes from strength to strength.”

Taking place under the patronage of H.H. Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Crown Prince of Dubai, the Dubai International Baja powered by Nissan and AW Rostamani is based at Dubai Autodrome. The event is supported by the Government of Dubai, Dubai Police, Dubai Municipality, the General Authority of Sports, Dubai Customs, Al Ain Water and Emarat petrol.

Al Balooshi had a tense ride to the bikes title last year as his KTM almost ran out of fuel on the second leg. He faces a big threat again from UAE-based French rider Benjamin Melot, runner up for the last two years, with Italian rider Manuel Lucchese and UAE-based Richard Brewer looking to build on their fourth and fifth places last year.

Relishing his return to action in Dubai will be Kuwait’s Fahad Al Musallam who will be aiming to complete a hat-trick of quads triumphs on a Yamaha 700 Raptor.

Twelve months ago, Al Qassimi’s hopes of an overall cars victory were dashed by a first leg mechanical failure, although he stormed back to set the fastest time on leg two to underline his credentials and will be determined to avoid any major problems this time.

UAE-based Thomas Bell and Patrick McMurren will be chasing another impressive finish in the Nissan Navara which saw them take sixth place last year.

Saudi Arabia’s Essa Al-Dossari aims to make his mark in Dubai in another Nissan Navara which gave him a second successive Ha’il Nissan International Rally victory on home territory alongside Emirati navigator Ali Hassan Obaid on New Year’s Day.

Also carrying the Saudi flag will be Ibrahim Al-Muhanna in the Mercedes truck which saw him clinch the Ha’il T4 title. His two support drivers are fellow Saudis Osama Alsanad and Raid Abutheeb.

Another driver making the quick transition from snow and ice to desert sand after the opening World Cup round will be Oman’s Abdullah Al Zubair who took second place in the T3 Side by Side category in Russia in a Can Am Maverick.

While he links up in Dubai with Qatari navigator Nasser Al Kuwari, his first round co-driver, fellow-Omani Faisal Al Raisi, will partner Abdullah’s father Zubair Al Zubair in a Jeep Wrangler.

The Dubai International Baja powered by Nissan and AW Rostamani will be launched by a ceremonial start at Dubai Autodrome on March 7.

Competitors head out from Dubai Autodrome into the desert on the morning of Friday 8 March to tackle a dramatic 407km special stage which will be run again the following morning before the event finishes back at the Autodrome at 12.30pm the same day

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