The KTM rider had recovered from a serious injury sustained in Morocco – that forced him to miss the event the previous year – and grew in confidence and strength as the season progressed. When the defending champion and Sunderland’s team-mate Toby Price fell in Bolivia and broke his femur, and the Monster Energy Honda Team made a costly servicing error, the dice was thrown in Sunderland’s favour and he held on to take a famous win in Buenos Aires.
Life has changed considerably for the modest rider who spends his time in Dubai between races, but he heads into next week’s Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge POWERED BY NISSAN knowing that victory is within his grasp, as he hopes to kick-start his FIM Cross-Country Rallies World Championship bid with a win.
The event gets underway with a super special stage at the Al-Forsan International Sports Resort on April 1 and runs through the deserts of the Rub Al-Khali until April 6.
Sunderland has the talented Austrian Matthias Walkner and Frenchman Antoine Meo as his Red Bull KTM Factory Racing team-mates over the twisting sand trails and towering dunes that make the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge so unique.
With the exception of 2014 – when the win fell to Honda’s Paolo Gonçalves – KTM has won the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge every year since 2001. The odds are stacked in the team’s favour again with the strength of Sunderland, Walkner and Meo and support from local rider Mohammed A-Balooshi on his Ride to Abu Dhabi Team KTM and Vendetta Racing’s David McBride. Meo returns to desert action for the first time since his nasty fall at the 2016 Dakar.
But Husqvarna would love to stop KTM in their sand tracks. Pablo Quintanilla relied on consistent finishes to win last year’s FIM world title on his Rockstar Energy 450 Rally and the Chilean starts as the top seed as a result of that title success. He is also part of a two-man team alongside the consistent Frenchman and multiple FIM Motocross and Enduro World Champion Pierre Alexandre Renet.
The Monster Energy Honda Team split its resources at the start of the season and American Ricky Brabec clinched victory in Mexico’s Sonora Rally last weekend against a strong field. Management have given the task of pushing for the Abu Dhabi win to Gonçalves and the Argentinean rider Kevin Benavides, as star rider Joan Barreda Bort recovers from injury.
Twenty-eight motorcycles and 17 quads grace the entry list for the ATCUAE’s flagship off-road classic and numerous local riders are in the hunt for success. Abdulla Dakhan and Khalid Al-Falaisi wheel out their respective Yamaha and Honda and Ibrahim Bugla also has a Honda on the entry, while Kuwait’s Mohammed Jaffar wheels out a KTM factory replica 450.
“We have a very strong motorcycle club in the UAE and enduro and cross-country rallying are very popular,”
“Sam Sunderland’s Dakar win was a major boost for the sport as a whole in the region and has attracted a lot of interest around the world. He has been a supporter of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge for several years, but we have a strong field of factory riders this year and the battle will be fascinating on two wheels.”
Mohsen Al Ameri, Manager of Tadweer in the Western Region, said:
“Our participation as a strategic sponsor at Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge 2017 in the Al-Dhafra Region comes in line with our commitment to provide a sustainable and healthy environment across the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. Our supervisors, workers, vehicles will be available 24 hours a day to remove the waste from the rally site.Taking part in such events comes in accordance with our vision to develop a leading sustainable and integrated waste management and pest control system by 2030. We strive to deploy the best technological solutions that help in boosting environmental sustainability and customer care excellence and fostering a conscious society that turns waste to an economic resource.”
The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge takes place under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the Ruler’s representative in Al-Dafra region, and has invaluable support from Al Dafrah Region Municipality, Abu Dhabi Municipality, the UAE Army, Abu Dhabi Police, National Ambulance Service, Yas Marina Circuit, ADNOC, Abu Dhabi Aviation, Al-Ain Water, Abu Dhabi Waste Management, Rotana and Centro Hotel – Yas Island, the Qasr Al-Sarab Resort and Al-Forsan Circuit.