Five-times winner Cyril Despres ready for new challenge in Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge
Abu Dhabi, UAE, 24 March, 2018: Cyril Despres may have scored five victories in the event, but the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge Powered by Nissan still presents the Frenchman with a new test on the World Cup stage over the next five days.
It is now ten years since Despres clinched the last of his bikes titles in the UAE, and his first attempt at the rally behind the wheel of cross country rally prototype presents him with a different kind of examination.
That 2008 win came during a golden decade when he relentlessly battled KTM team-mate Marc Coma for supremacy on two wheels, securing five Dakar Rally triumphs in the process, the last arriving in 2013.
After that, Despres swapped his handlebars for a steering wheel, and partnered by Swiss co-driver Steve Ravussin in a Buggy Ford 2WD, he sets off on the first of five demanding Desert Challenge stages tomorrow morning facing a virtual ocean of dunes and more opposition than he previously knew.
The UAE’s defending champion Khalid Al Qassimi, Polish driver Jakub Przygonski, Saudi Arabia’s Yazeed Al-Rajhi and Russia’s two-times winner, Vladimir Vasilyev, are all reminders that Despres has more to contend with on this occasion.
“During my days duelling with Marc Coma, I had a nearly one in two chance of winning at the start,” he says. “Now, it is more like one in ten. If I compare my two careers, for sure I have won more stages on a bike. I was more competitive, but I am starting to get there in a car.”
Taking place under the patronage of of H.H. Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Ruler's Representative in Al Dafrah Region, the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge Powered by Nissan is the third round of this year’s FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies for cars and buggies.
Following Saturday afternoon’s super special spectator stage, the rally changes gear to negotiate the 276.01km Yas Marina Circuit Stage which later delivers the cars, buggies, bikes and quads to the bivouac, close to the Qasr Al-Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara, where the event is based for five nights.
“This is where all the real hard work begins, and it’s a complete test of concentration, stamina, nerve and navigational skill which doesn’t let up until the finish,” said Mohammed Ben Sulayem, President of the ATCUAE and Emirates Motorsport Federation and FIA Vice President for sport.
The rally is supported by Al Dafrah Region Municipality, Abu Dhabi Municipality, the UAE Army, Abu Dhabi Police, Nissan Middle East, ADNOC, Abu Dhabi Aviation, Al-Ain Water, National Ambulance Service, Tadweer, Yas Marina Circuit and the Qasr Al-Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara.
With the Nissan (287.92km), Al Ain Water (281.38km), ADNOC (244.49km) and Abu Dhabi Aviation (218.57km) stages to follow, it’s a test which has helped build some of the sport’s biggest stars. Sam Sunderland had a number of near misses before scoring his first bikes title last year, and experience gained in the event helped him to his historic 2017 Dakar Rally triumph.
The Dubai-based British rider has now fully recovered after damaging his spine in a crash which put him out of this year’s Dakar Rally in January, and he faces another desert battle with the rest of the best in the opening round of the FIM Cross Country Rallies World Championship for bikes and quads.
Aiming to take his Desert Challenge crown away are Chilean Pablo Quintanilla on a Husqvarna, Austrian KTM team-mate, Matthias Walkner as well as Honda stars Paulo Goncalves of Portugal – the 2014 winner - American Ricky Brabec, Argentina’s Kevin Benavides, Chilean Jose Ignacio Cornejo and Frenchman Michael Metge. The rally finishes at Yas Marina Circuit at 4.30pm on Thursday.