There was to be no fairytale homecoming for the UAE’s Khalifa Al-Mutaiwei as veteran rally driver Jean-Louis Schlesser wrapped up an historic sixth Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge title by winning today’s final leg.
Schlesser’s win means he now holds more Desert Challenge titles than any other driver. Nevertheless, after more than 20 hours of gruelling competition across the demanding terrain of the Western Region of Al Gharbia, the Frenchman was only able to sew up victory when Al-Mutaiwei’s MINI All4 Racing car experienced problems with its fan on the final day.
Partnered by co-driver Konstantin Zhilstov from Russia in his Sonangol Buggy, Schlesser proved that there is no substitute for experience in the world’s ultimate desert rally as he recorded a winning margin of 1h 37m 19s in round two of the FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies.
“This is such a good win as there are so many big teams and strong competitors taking part this year,” said Schlesser, who completed the rally in 21h 39m 16s. “The important thing is not how you start, but how you finish, and today was good. It’s always great to get onto the podium.”
Despite the final day problems, Al Mutaiwei and co-driver Andreas Schulz had enjoyed an impressive return to one of the world’s toughest rallies. Racing for Team X-Raid, the 2004 FIA World Champion finished 46 minutes ahead of another Frenchman, Patrick Sireyjol in third place.
“This is probably the most demanding rally with sand dunes in the world,” said the Emirati. “I am quite happy to finish second and to see that I still have the speed to match the rest after my seven-year absence. I must not forget that this is still a learning year for me and to finish second is still a pleasing achievement.”
Arguably the UAE’s most experienced rally driver, Yahya Bel Helei celebrated a remarkable 22nd consecutive appearance in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge by simultaneously winning the T2 class and finishing fourth overall. Driving a Nissan Patrol, it was yet another excellent performance by the Emirati and co-driver Khalid Al Kendi, who also took fourth place last year.
“This rally is very difficult and that’s why it attracts the top names from this sport. I’m very pleased with my performance, especially as there were several hours between me and my closest competitor in the category,” said Bel Helei. “As an Emirati, I’m proud to have established such a good record over the past 22 years of competing here.”
Throughout the competition, Middle East drivers once again demonstrated their ability to compete with the world’s best in the extremely demanding desert rally. Matar Al Mansoori from the UAE and his Omani co-driver Ahmed Al Hajri finished a highly creditable sixth, while Nabil Al Shamsi from the UAE and Ibrahim Al Muhanna from Saudi Arabia also performed well in their Nissans.
Mohammed Ben Sulayem, founder of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge and president of rally organisers the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE (ATCUAE), said: “This year, the Desert Challenge has attracted a higher standard of international competitors than ever before. At the same time it is extremely positive to see such strong, competitive performances by the many UAE entrants.”
“Jean-Louis Schlesser is one of the toughest competitors in the rally world, so it is fitting that he should make history today in what is acknowledged to be one of the most demanding rallies in the world,” he added.
The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge is held under the under the patronage of HH Sheikh Hamdan Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Ruler’s Representative in the Western Region. Its high-profile line-up of supporters, includes the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority, Nissan, ADNOC and Abu Dhabi Aviation.