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Private Cross-Country Teams Bid For Glory In New-Look Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge

UAE’s Mabbs and Reid look for podium finishes

This month’s Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge has been the winning domain of professional European cross-country rally teams for many years, but this year the private drivers have their best-ever chance of achieving a podium finish. Mohammed Ben Sulayem, FIA Vice President for Sport, President of the Automobile & Touring Club of the UAE (ATCUAE) and Chairman of the Organising Committee of the rebranded event said expatiate drivers have been supporting the Desert Challenge for several seasons. He said that many are eagerly anticipating the start of this year’s event from the landmark Emirates Palace hotel in Abu Dhabi on Sunday, March 22, instead of the previous November date. It will finish on March 27 at Abu Dhabi International Marine Sports Club (ADIMSC). "The Desert Challenge has been the traditional final round of the FIA World Cup and FIM Cross-Country Rallies World Championship, but with the date change we will now start the FIA and FIM off-road rallying seasons in the UAE capital. "We are seeing extra strong support from local participants," said Ben Sulayem. He also confirmed that the Middle East’s premier event has the crucial backing of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) as title sponsor for the first time. UAE-based Briton, David Mabbs, 36, is one of the expat hopefuls looking for a podium place. Mabbs, a marine engineering project manager, decided to opt for something different to use on Baja-type rallies in the Middle East. He achieved some success in a powerful Land Rover, but and last September sourced a unique Toyota FJ Cruiser on the Internet from the United States. Mabbs gave it its inaugural run at last November’s Desert Challenge, but an accident over a heavy landing in the dunes hospitalised his then co-driver, Tim Ansell with a lower back injury. Mabbs’s Toyota was originally built by Donahoe Racing in the United States at the request of Toyota North America to challenge for honours in the SCORE Stock Mini Series category. It also finished second in its class at the Baja 1000. “I had a problem,” admitted Mabbs. “The Land Rover had finally thrown up its bonnet in surrender and I knew that I needed something else if I was to continue to be competitive in the sport in the Middle East.” The Toyota’s unique design was thoroughly reviewed by the FIA’s technical committee in Paris and the technical review meant that Mabbs was forced to implement several other changes before the car could be admitted into the FIA T1 category and be eligible for events like the Desert Challenge. The engine – which let him down on January’s Ha’il Saudi Baja - remains a near-standard 4.0-litre V6 unit, but the rear end has been fitted with a unique four-link suspension, equipped with new shock absorbers fitted with coil-over springs and ‘Jounce Shocks’. The front suspension has also been custom-built for this type of rallying. “In the desert, suspension is king,” admits Mabbs. “No matter how powerful the engine and how fast the driver, weak suspension will break within hours and we’d have no chance of competing with the works teams on the Desert Challenge without attention to detail in this area.” There was still a fair amount of work to be done before the FJ was eligible for the Desert Challenge. A new bulkhead has been installed between the cockpit and the rear cabin-mounted fuel tank and new seats have been fitted, with six-point harnesses and a fire extinguisher. The car runs without a windscreen in situ, but Mabbs prefers the problem of dust in the cockpit than excessive temperatures that other drivers face on events like the Desert Challenge. He and his new French co-driver, Xavier Caminada, are confident they can push for the top five in the car category this month. Ansell, meanwhile, has fully recovered and is working as Team FJ’s on-event manager. Team Saluki’s Mark Powell, has also been a supporter of the Desert Challenge for many years with Land Rover-based products, but he finished a superb second overall in the recent Ha’il Saudi Baja in a Honda-engined Buggy. He and co-driver, Paul Richards, finished nearly 13 minutes ahead of the talented Czech driver, Miroslav Zapletal, in Saudi Arabia, but Powell’s place in the nimble Buggy will be taken by Glenn Reid in this year’s Challenge. “We got the car working perfectly in Saudi Arabia a few weeks ago and that has given the team tremendous confidence,” said Powell. Ian Barker is a friend and racing rival of Mabbs, Reid and Powell. He and Sheila Hutton-Barker make up the only husband and wife rally team in the Desert Challenge. Barker was unable to achieve the result he wanted in Saudi Arabia earlier this year, but heads to the UAE capital with a rebuilt Nissan Patrol and one eye on the leader board. ADTA’s Deputy Director General Tourism Operations Ahmed Hussein said he is thrilled that the event’s appeal spans a broad profile of drivers. “We are fully behind the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge for many reasons, not least its ability to pull in interest from a wide range of driver and spectator profiles.” ADTA has confirmed a three-year deal that gives the emirate the title sponsorship of the event which will further showcase Abu Dhabi’s potential as a major international events and tourism destination. According to Ben Sulayem, David, Glenn and Ian have been loyal supporters of the Desert Challenge for several years. “They are always enthusiastic about any changes we make to the route and format of the event and I wish them all the best in their bid for honours this month,” he concluded. The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge will be based at the Abu Dhabi International Marine Sports Club (ADIMSC) for the first time and offers five punishing days of frenetic motor sport competition through some of the most remote and scenic areas of Abu Dhabi’s Empty Quarter. The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge 2009 has the backing of key players, including the event’s title sponsor, Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA), Nissan, ADNOC, Beach Rotana - Abu Dhabi, etisalat, Explorer, Hertz, Lambda Electronics, Oasis Water, TAG Heuer, and the Rally HQ host, ADIMSC, where the event finishes on Friday, March 27.

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