Bengaluru, March 28: The new FIA cross-country rally season is hitting top gear as agroup of world class off-road racers target glory this year.
The upcoming Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge will welcome a number of high-profile Dakar Rally champions as well as a host of exciting, up-and-coming competitors.
The challenge for all entered into the rally will be the same - master 2,000-kilometres of desert to take home the big prize.
Elsewhere, current Dakar Rally champions Nasser Saleh Al Attiyah of Qatar and his French co-driver Mathieu Baumel will tackle the Merzouga Rally in Morocco.
Al Attiyah's perfect start
Al Attiyah and Mathieu have made the perfect start to 2019 with victory at the Dakar Rally as well as at the FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies' opening round in Qatar. Now the duo are focused on taking the chequered flag of the SxS race at the 10th anniversary of the Merzouga Rally.
"Every race is important. Whatever race we enter, our aim is always to win," said Al Attiyah.
Meanwhile, the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge is the second round of the 2019 FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies, following the Qatar Cross-Country Rally.
Returning to race the rally after an absence of nearly a decade is 13-time Dakar winner Stephane Peterhansel (FRA). Peterhansel will race a MINI John Cooper Works Rally alongside his wife. Andrea Peterhansel (GER) will be giving pacenotes to her husband for the first time in the car category after several SxS races together.
"I'm really looking forward to the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge - I haven't been there for ages," said Peterhansel.
Despres in focus
Also heading to the famous Yas Marina Circuit for pre-race scrutineering this week are a pair of MINI John Cooper Works Buggies.
One will be under the control of Kuba Przygonski (POL) who with co-driver Timo Gottschalk (GER) recently won the Dubai International Baja. The second MINI Buggy will be driven by five-time Dakar bike race winner Cyril Despres (FRA) who joins forces with co-driver Dani Oliveras (ESP) for the first time.
"The desert in Abu Dhabi is very special because there you'll find a lot of big dunes - I always had a lot of fun there," said Despres.
Pressure on Sunderland
The only former Dakar winner entered into the bike contest at the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge is Sam Sunderland (GBR). The pressure will be on the UAE-based rider to show his class against a competitive field hungry to taste some success themselves.
The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge is the opening round of this year's FIM Cross-Country Rally World Championship.
"Once you have won the race once it has to be your goal to do it again and that's what I will be aiming for," said Sunderland.
(With Red Bull Media inputs)