World’s finest off-road motorcyclists set for Qatar’s Sealine Desert Challenge

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Several of the world’s leading off-road motorcycle racers, including seven of the top eight in this year’s FIM Cross-Country World Championship rankings, will do battle across the deserts of the State of Qatar during this week’s Sealine Cross-Country Rally, starting on Monday morning.

The prestigious FIM series will be fought out over five rallies in Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Sardinia, Chile and Morocco this year. Top finishes in the five-stage event being laid on by the Qatar Motor and Motorcycle Federation (QMMF), in conjunction with the FIM, will be crucial to the title aspirations of the likes of defending Dakar champion Toby Price and his Dubai-based English rival Sam Sunderland.

Both have been invited to attend Sunday afternoon’s pre-event press conference at the Losail International Circuit, north of Doha, and both are locked in a fascinating duel for supremacy as part of the Red Bull-KTM Factory Team that has dominated off-road rallying, and the Dakar Rally in particular, for so many years.

Price drew first blood in this year’s FIM series by following up his stunning Dakar victory in January with the win at the recent Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge. He is the hottest property in cross-country motorcycling at the moment but the Aussie is aware that the deserts of Qatar pose very different challenges to the dunes and baking sand of the United Arab Emirates. He holds a seven-point lead over Sunderland at this early stage of the title race.

Sunderland was forced to miss the Dakar through injury, but returned with a vengeance to push Price all the way in Abu Dhabi. He has been to Qatar before, fallen heavily and knows the perils of the navigation and the numerous parallel tracks and deceptive turns that make this event so challenging.

Chile’s Pablo Quintanilla holds third in the points’ standings and will be ready to pounce if one of his KTM rivals hits trouble. Riding a Rockstar-backed Husqvarna 450 Rally, Quintanilla was third in Abu Dhabi and claimed a similar finishing position at the Dakar behind Price and Slovakia’s Stefan Svitko. He even won the last special stage in Argentina and is sure to be a threat to the top two.

Emirati Mohammed Al-Balooshi is the leading Arab driver on the motorcycle entry and quite capable of guiding his KTM 450 Rally to the podium. He holds fourth in the title race, ahead of Frenchman Pierre Alexander Renet and the leading Spanish lady rider, Laia Sanz, both of whom have entered the Sealine event on their respective factory Husqvarna and KTM.

Two factory-supported Yamahas have also been entered in Qatar for the experienced Portuguese rider Helder Rodrigues and his Frence team-mate Adrien Van Beveren. Rodrigues won the penultimate stage at the Dakar for the Japanese manufacturer and finished in a fine fifth position. Van Beveren also enjoyed a superb Dakar and finished sixth.

With Honda’s Team HRC not entering any events until the Merzouga round of the Dakar Series in May and recently announcing it has moved operations to Santa Perpetua de la Mogoda, near Barcelona, the field is lacking two or three additional professional riders. But the likes of Poland’s Jakub Piatek and the Orlen Team’s Bolivian rider Juan Carlos Salvatierra are quite capable of reaching the top five on their KTMs.

Rafal Sonik has been nearly as successful on a quad at the Sealine Rally as local hero Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah has been in a car. The Pole has won the event three times in four years (2012, 2013 and 2015) and is chasing a fourth victory in the space of five seasons on his Honda TRX 700. His main rival in Qatar is the Chilean Ignacio Casale, riding a Yamaha Raptor 700 SE.

Qatar’s hopes rest on the shoulders of Ahmed Fahad Al-Kuwari, who is seeded at 28 and rides a KTM 450 EXC.

Tomorrow (Sunday), competitors go through the mandatory administration and scrutineering checks at the Losail international circuit, before several drivers and riders are joined by QMMF president Abdulrahman Al-Mannai and LCSC chairman Saud Al-Attiyah at the official pre-event press conference.