Six weeks after the Dakar wound to a close, the W2RC is back with the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge (ADDC), scheduled for 26 February to 3 March. The second round will bring the field to a familiar landscape —the dunes of the Empty Quarter, this time on the other side of the Saudi border, in Abu Dhabi.
In the car category, the ADDC will set up a rematch between Nasser Al Attiyah (Toyota Gazoo Racing) and his runner-up, Sébastien Loeb (Bahrain Raid Xtreme). Once again, the top drivers of the 2022 season are virtually tied after the inaugural round, with the difference that the Frenchman now leads the Qatari by 87 points to 85.
In the motorbike category, the reigning world champion, Sam Sunderland (Red Bull GasGas Factory Racing), is returning to competition after crashing out of the Dakar. The three-time winner of the ADDC will almost be racing in his backyard in his duel with the provisional leader, Kevin Benavides (Red Bull KTM Factory Racing). · 55 vehicles —30 FIA and 25 FIM— are slated to take the start of the second leg of the W2RC in 10 days.
CARS: GAME ON BETWEEN AL ATTIYAH AND LOEB
This was the second Dakar in a row that Nasser Al Attiyah built up an unassailable lead during the first week and simply cruised to the win in the second half of the race. However, this time round, Sébastien Loeb scored more championship points than this rival as he rocketed up the standings to second place overall, picking up a record-breaking six consecutive specials in the process. At the same juncture of 2022, Loeb stood a single point behind the leader, whereas now he is two points ahead. A cut below the King Kong and Godzilla of the W2RC, Guerlain Chicherit (GCK Motorsport), a newcomer to the season-long event, sits in third place with 49 points at the wheel of his Prodrive Hunter. Yazeed Al Rajhi (Overdrive Racing), third in the championship last year, is uncharacteristically off the pace in tenth place, with just 19 points to his name. The Saudi stopped during a stage of the Dakar to give his suspension to one of his teammates, putting his team's interests ahead of his own position in the championship. Al Rajhi is banking on the ADDC to jockey back into contention for the championship. Toyota is also fielding the Argentinian Juan Cruz Yacopini (Overdrive Racing), as well as Magdalena Zając and her experienced co-driver, Jacek Czachor (Proxcars TME Rally Team). Two X-raid Mini JCWs stand ready to take the fight to the four Hiluxes and two Hunters with Sebastián Halpern and Denis Krotov, driving the Germans' all-new T1+, unveiled only last January. As in the Dakar, there will be two pairs of vehicles representing China, with Han Wei and Tian Po (Hanwei Motorsport) and Guoyu Zhang and Yunliang Zi (BAIC ORV). In contrast, Martin Prokop will be venturing out all on his own, but this did not stop him from finishing second overall in last year's ADDC, already at the wheel of his Ford Raptor. There are a total of 13 entrants on the T1 start list.
T3/T4: LIGHTWEIGHT PROTOTYPES WITH SURPRISES IN STORE
"Chaleco" López and Cristina Gutiérrez placed their T3s in first and second place of the W2RC ranking in the 2022 ADDC, ahead of two T1s. As it happens, a star crew from the T1 category will be sporting number 300, the first of the lightweight prototype race. Mattias Ekström and Emil Bergkvist, who raced for Audi in the Dakar, will be entering this category with the South Racing Can-Am Team. The former Overdrive Racing driver Erik van Loon, who has turned the page on his T1+ career, will be competing for the same team alongside his usual co-driver, Sébastien Delaunay. This strategic category switch could pay dividends in the driver and co-driver standings after the second round. Yasir Seaidan, in his element in the dunes of the ADDC, will be the third piece in South Racing Can-Am's three-pronged attack. These three top-tier freelancers will come up against Red Bull Off-Road Junior Team USA, spearheaded by the Dakar champion, Austin Jones, Seth Quintero and Mitch Guthrie Jr., along with their Red Bull Can-Am Factory ally Cristina Gutiérrez. João Ferreira and Annett Fischer will be representing the new X-raid / Yamaha clan. Two Frenchmen, Claude Fournier (Can-Am) and Jean-Luc Ceccaldi (PH-Sport Zéphyr) are ready to crash the party. Finally, two female drivers are worth keeping an eye on: the Saudi Dania Akeel and the youngster Aliyyah Koloc. Meanwhile, the T4 race looks set to be a clash of generations. The reigning world champion Rokas Baciuška (Red Bull Can-Am Factory) and the rising star Pau Navarro (FN Speed) will be up against Polaris's grizzled veterans, Michèle Cinotto and Shinsuke Umeda. These two regular fixtures of the category will have cutting-edge technology at their disposal in the shape of Xtremeplus's new RZR Pro R cars.
MOTORBIKES/QUADS: THE RETURN OF THE KING
After crashing out of the race within the first three days of the Dakar, Sam Sunderland and Ricky Brabec (Monster Energy Honda), first and second in the 2022 season, are back in the mix with zero points in the bag. They are in for a real challenge, but is worth noting that Adrien Van Beveren managed to finish third overall last year, just one point shy of second place, after going home empty-handed from the Dakar. The championship remains wide open with four legs to go! "Sundersam", a long-time Emirati resident with three ADDC wins under his belt, is still likely to mount a successful title defence. With Daniel Sanders again on the sidelines due to injury, GasGas is putting all its eggs in the Brit's basket. The 2022 runner-up, Ricky Brabec, will fight to catch up with the other works bikers, including his three stablemates at Monster Energy Honda, Adrien Van Beveren, "Nacho" Cornejo and Pablo Quintanilla. Red Bull KTM Factory Racing will find strength in numbers, with the Dakar champion, Kevin Benavides, his runner-up, Toby Price, and Matthias Walkner. Skyler Howes (third in the Dakar) and Luciano Benavides will be flying the flag for Husqvarna Factory Racing. Hero MotoSports will be fielding two of its four factory bikers, namely, Ross Branch and Sebastian Bühler. The 2022 Rally2 World Cup champion, Mason Klein (BAS World KTM Racing), who has made his RallyGP debut this season, brings the total for this category to 13 bikers. In the Rally2 category, Romain Dumontier (HT Rally Raid Husqvarna Racing), who has led the championship since the end of the Dakar, is taking a gamble by not starting the ADDC. The rules for this learning category allow bikers to scrap one of their results from the championship tally, and the Frenchman has chosen to exercise this option for the second leg, giving a clear run to direct rivals such as Paolo Lucci (BAS World KTM Racing), Michael Docherty (SRG Motorsports), Jean-Loup Lepan and Konrad Dąbrowski from Duust Diverse Racing and Toni Mulec (BAS World KTM Racing). The Romanians Ionuț Florea and Andrei Cristian Danila bring the Rally2 total to 7 bikers in their W2RC debut. In the quad category, the local hero and two-time defending champion, Abdulaziz Ahli, is the big favourite, just like Sunderland, who he followed in crashing out of the Dakar earlier this year. The Emirati faces a formidable Lithuanian armada. Laisvydas Kancius (AG Dakar School), his closest rival for the championship in the ADDC, will be escorted by Adomas Gancierus and Antonas Kanopkinas. Rodolfo Guillioli, who lit up the inaugural W2RC season, will be flying in from Guatemala to take the total to 5 riders.
Khalid Bin Sulayem, EMSO President
"This year's ADDC will be the most challenging yet as the EMSO raises the stakes. The competitors will have an even longer route to tackle, taking on 237 kilometres more than in 2022 for an intimidating total of 2,170 kilometres."