Over 100 vehicles have been cleared to start the 32nd edition of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, following the usual scrutineering at the Energy Business Center in Abu Dhabi. 48 FIA crews and 46 FIM bikers registered for the W2RC will be taking part in the second round of the season. The car category will set up a rematch between the reigning world champion, Nasser Al Attiyah (Toyota Gazoo Racing), and his runner-up, Sébastien Loeb (Bahrain Raid Xtreme). The Frenchman is just 2 points clear of the Qatari at the top of the standings. In the motorbike category, the overall leader, Kevin Benavides (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing), and the reigning world champion, Sam Sunderland (Red Bull GasGas Factory Racing), will be skipping the event due to injuries sustained this week, opening up the race in RallyGP. Tomorrow, the field will head to Al Dannah, which is making its debut in the stage and will host the prologue in the afternoon, as well as the first stage —of five— on Monday morning. Over 2,000 km, including almost 1,300 km of timed sections, stand between the competitors and the finish in the capital on 3 March.
FIA: A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME
Nine out of the top ten crews in the general standings put their names down for the ADDC. Mathieu Serradori (Century Racing) is the only one not present for the roll call. Sébastien Loeb and Nasser Al Attiyah, a three-time winner of the ADDC (2008, 2016 and 2021), sit in first and second place, ahead of Guerlain Chicherit (GCK Motorsport), who bagged the race in 2009. Martin Prokop (Orlen Benzima Team), fifth overall, also took the spoils in the 2018 ADDC. The Czech and his Ford Ranger came in second last year. Yazeed Al Rajhi (Overdrive Racing), third in the 2022 World Championship but now stuck in tenth place overall, needs a strong performance in the ADDC to move up to the top 5. But there is more to the race than the T1 category! Last year, "Chaleco" López and Cristina Gutiérrez drove their T3s into third and fourth overall. As it happens, Matthias Ekström is swapping his Audi for a T3 for the ADDC. The Swede, fourth in the ranking, will race at the wheel of one of South Racing's T3s in a bid to learn to read the dunes and, why not, to fight for the top spots. The rules award points to drivers and co-drivers whether their vehicles are T1s, T3s or T4s. This is a novel strategy for such a high-placed crew in the standings. The verdict will come in at the end of the ADDC next week. Still in the T3 race, "Chaleco" López's decision to stay at home with his newborn child, who came to this world shortly after the Dakar, means Cristina Gutiérrez (Red Bull Can-Am Factory) and her Red Bull Off-Road Junior Team USA stablemates Austin Jones (who is topping the leader board), Seth Quintero and Mitch Guthrie Jr. will be the ones hogging the limelight. In the T4 category, the 18-year-old Dakar champion, Eryk Goczał, is taking a leaf out of the Chilean's book, but for a reason of the mind, not of the heart. The young Pole has chosen to prioritise his studies. Rokas Baciuška (Red Bull Can-Am Factory), the reigning champion, now second overall, is in a prime position to regain the upper hand in the ranking, as the rest of the Goczał family has also decided to sit this one out.
FIM: K. BENAVIDES AND SUNDERLAND OUT
The Dakar champion, Kevin Benavides, broke his femur while training for the race on Wednesday. Sam Sunderland also bit the dust on Friday, when the three-timer ADDC winner (2017, 2019 and 2022), who was poised to return to the competition following his crash in the first stage of the Dakar, broke an ankle. The last-minute withdrawal of the Argentinian biker, who leads the overall, raises the stakes for the championship. No-one is better placed to exploit this opening than his teammate Toby Price, who also sits second overall. The Australian, who already clinched the 2016 ADDC, finished fourth here last year, but Price will be the only one flying the orange colours that dominate the constructor standings. Matthias Walkner, the 2021 ADDC champion, announced this week that his wrist still needs time to heal from the injuries sustained in the Dakar. This could play into the hands of Monster Energy Honda, the reigning world champion in the constructor category, with its Fantastic Four, who have done fairly well in the last few editions of the ADDC. Pablo Quintanilla, fourth overall and winner of the 2018 ADDC, was third last year, behind Ricky Brabec. Adrien Van Beveren, fifth overall, was the runner-up in his most recent participation, back in 2021. At Husqvarna Factory Racing, the odds have shortened for Skyler Howes (third in the Dakar), who discovered the ADDC last year, and Luciano Benavides (three stage wins in the Dakar), but they do not know the race as well as Hero MotoSport's two riders, Ross Branch and Sebastian Bühler. In the Rally2 race, the absence of the overall leader, Romain Dumontier (HT Rally Raid Husqvarna Racing), seemed to open the door to Michael Docherty (SRG Motorsports) but, much like Walkner, the South African is still nursing an injury from the Dakar that will not allow him to take the start. Good news for Paolo Lucci (BAS World KTM Racing), who will not have to contend with his two fiercest rivals.