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Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge welcomes sand racing specialists for Round Two of World Rally-Raid Championship


With the dust barely settled after a pulsating 2023 Dakar Rally, the World Rally-Raid Championship returns to action this week for the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge. The Empty Quarter Desert will once again feature heavily during Round Two of the series where an intimidating total of 1,311 kilometres are spread over five deserts stages.

When racing gets underway in Abu Dhabi with the Prologue Stage on Sunday, February 26, we’re sure to see a battle royale between leading car race rivals Nasser Al-Attiyah and Sébastien Loeb. Al-Attiyah has placed first at the previous two editions of the Dakar and also won last year’s inaugural W2RC. On each of these occasions his closest competitor has been Loeb.

Al-Attiyah celebrated victory at last month’s Dakar alongside co-driver Mathieu Baumel in their Toyota GR DKR Hilux T1+. The duo continued their perfect start to the year earlier this month with victories at the Saudi Baja and the Qatar International Rally. Al-Attiyah is now out to make it four wins on the spin in the Middle East.

“You never know what the desert brings, and there are a lot of fast cars in the race this year. I’ll do my best, and we’ll see where that brings us.” – Nasser Al-Attiyah

Despite finishing second to Al-Attiyah at the Dakar, it’s Loeb who leads the W2RC coming into Round Two. Loeb bagged 40 points for his runners-up finish in Saudi Arabia and a further 47 points for stage results, including five stage wins. Loeb now reunites with co-driver Fabian Lurquin and their BRX Prodrive Hunter T1+ with the aim of increasing a two-point series lead over Al-Attiyah.

“At Dakar we saw that we had some very good speed, especially in the dunes. It would be great to come out of Abu Dhabi still on top of the points.” – Sébastien Loeb

The T3 race will be led out by reigning Dakar champions Austin ‘AJ’ Jones and co-driver Gustavo Gugelmin. The Red Bull Off-Road Junior Team USA presented by BFGoodrich pair were consistently brilliant in Saudi Arabia last month and have taken an early lead in the W2RC rankings.

AJ’s closest competitor in the W2RC leaderboard is team-mate and fellow Can-Am Maverick XRS driver Seth Quintero. 20-year-old Quintero finished up second at the Dakar alongside co-driver Dennis Zenz and trails AJ by just six points in the W2RC rankings with four stops remaining in this year’s series.

Also looking to make their mark on the ADDC are Mitch Guthrie Jr./Kellon Walch in their MCE5 machine as well as Cristina Gutiérrez/Pablo Moreno in their Can-Am.

“Next up it’s the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge. I’m racing with MCE5 Development and I can’t wait to get back in the dunes.” – Mitch Guthrie Jr.

Joining the fun in the T3 class in Abu Dhabi will be Mattias Ekström and co-driver Emil Bergkvist as they swap their Audi RS Q e-tron Evo 2 for a Can-Am for this rally.

“Sitting on sofa is not my thing, so see you at Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge. This time in T3 class with a Can-Am from South Racing.” – Mattias Ekström

In the T4 category there’s an immediate shot at redemption for Rokas Baciuška and co-driver Oriol Vidal who slipped from first overall to second on the final stage of the 2023 Dakar.

“We’re getting ready for another sandy adventure!” – Rokas Baciuška

After picking up their first one-two Dakar result since the rally relocated to Saudi Arabia, Red Bull KTM Factory Racing are targeting even more Middle Eastern success. 2023 Dakar runner-up Toby Price is currently second in the FIM World Rally-Raid Championship rankings.

“After a good start to the year things are looking pretty well for Abu Dhabi. We’re keen to get out there and get back on the bike.” – Toby Price

Defending his W2RC bikers’ title in 2023 is Sam Sunderland of Red Bull GASGAS Factory Racing. The 2022 Dakar winner was forced to retire on Stage One during last month’s rally, but he now returns to race the ADDC where he’s enjoyed plenty of success in the past.

“I’ve won here three times so the goal has to be to try and win again. There’ll be a lot of strong competition as always, but that’s what makes racing fun.” – Sam Sunderland

There will also be plenty of support at the ADDC for UAE biker Mohammed Balooshi who completed his fourth edition of the Dakar in January.

The 2023 Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge gets underway with its Prologue Stage on Sunday, February 26. Then comes 1,311 kilometres of timed racing spread over five special stages before the chequered flag falls on Friday, March 3. With World Rally-Raid Championship points up for grabs across all categories, expect exciting desert racing all the way!

Chris Leone

A veteran of the motorsports industry (both physical and digital), Chris Leone contributes coverage of race events of all types to Off-Road Racer. Elsewhere, he is the marketing/communications manager at iRacing, media director of Jim Beaver's Down & Dirty Show, and a frequent contributor to UTV Underground.