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Abu Dhabi  Desert Challenge- Marian Chatka

Locked and Loaded: 2022 Abu-Dhabi Desert Challenge

Mar 072022

Locked, loaded and ready to rock. The second round of the all new 2022  FIA World Rally-Raid Championship goes live on the 6th March; ready to test man and machine to the limit. Running from the 6th to the 10th of March through the Rub al Khali (the “Empty Quarter”) of the Abu Dhabi desert in a sprint race format covering 1,917km. 

Marking an exciting new chapter in rally raid competition, the Abu-Dhabi Desert Challenge follows hot in the wheel tracks of the championship’s opening round, the legendary Dakar Rally, to form part of an epic five-round series which will crown a first-ever FIA World Rally Raid Champion.

It’s not going to be easy though. In Abu Dhabi alone, there will be some of the world's most spectacular sand dunes en-route; promising peril and glory in equal measure. Our athletes are ready for the challenge though. 

Just seven weeks after Austin Jones clinched the victory of the legendary Dakar Rally in the SSV category, and Pablo Quintanilla finished second at the bars of his Monster Energy factory Honda motorcycle, the hot favorites will face off against the very best off-road racers on the planet.



There is little doubt that Austin Jones is the man to beat in the SSV category. Winner of the 2022 Dakar, and the first American to be crowned FIA T4 world rally raid champion (in 2021), AJ knows how to win in tough conditions.


 “Ahead of us, we have five long days of sand dunes. It’s a very tricky terrain with a lot of sudden drops. It will be important to remain focused and keep a good pace,” explains AJ. “Once again consistency will be the key. From experience, I know that it’s crucial to have good stage results every day for the ultimate goal. Our target is to win the race as we did last year, an important brick to keep the momentum and build the championship race by race”. 



The Monster Energy Honda factory squad lines up with three riders, all capable of fighting for the win: Pablo Quintanilla, winner in Abu Dhabi in 2018, alongside 2020 Dakar champion Ricky Brabec and Ignacio “Nacho” Cornejo.


With the Dakar Rally now part of the 2R FIM and FIA Rally Raid Championship for the first time, Pablo Quintanilla starts second in the standings with 30 points, behind rival Sam Sunderland (on 38 points). The Chilean knows how to win, and lines up in Abu Dhabi with the same focus and relaxed approach that allowed him to fight for the win at the Dakar.


The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge will be a fresh new start for 2020 Dakar winner Ricky Brabec too, after somewhat of a disappointing Dakar last time out:

“This will be my third time racing in Abu Dhabi '', commented Brabec. “The first one was actually in 2015. It was sort of my debut in the big dunes and in the discipline and now I can laugh and say that it was quite a scary start! Now it’s a familiar place. We will play in the sand box for many days and of course, we will have to reset. In a way, for me, it’s a fresh new start as the Dakar was quite frustrating for me this year. It was not what we envisioned, but it’s behind us”.


“Dakar has always been an icon, not only for me but for the whole rally raid fans. In a way, I feel its uniqueness and greatness was also due to the fact that it was a standalone; the most grueling race in the world with no room for mistakes. My goal now is to chase the championship and fight for the top three positions in the next Dakar. Repeating myself after the stunning victory in 2020 remains the ultimate goal, not only for me but for everyone in Honda. Their support has been amazing in good and in difficult times”. 


The past seven weeks have flown by for the US rider. “In terms of preparation this race came quite quick, but we made it to do an important roadbook training week in the sand. We look great for the rally and keep moving forward. We have the whole season to prepare for the Dakar”.


The Rally in the Emirates has a special place also for Chilean Nacho Cornejo, who made his debut in the world championship here back in 2015 too: “I have very good memories of this place. It’s a very demanding rally where everyone pushes 100 percent. It’s always a great battle to be good at the stages and I expect a hard fight for the top spots. This is good for the competition and the sports side of the sport and I really look forward to being part of the whole championship. In terms of race approach, something has changed with the Dakar being part of the 2R world championship for the first time this year. Navigation will become more and more important also in this rally that usually is a sprint race every day. This is a good point for me as navigation is one of my strengths”.



There’s a fresh challenge for fan-favorite off-road racer Ross Branch. The 35-year-old from Botswana, who is a three-time South African Cross-Country Champion and seven-time winner of the Botswana 1000 Desert Race, faces the rally highly motivated as he joins forces with the Hero MotoSports Rally Team.


“I’m really happy about this exciting opportunity to start this new adventure with Hero Motorsports. It’s a very professional squad. We haven’t set any specific goal for this race as I’m still getting used to the new bike and recovering from the injury I had in the Dakar”, confessed Branch, who is highly respected in the rally raid community for his speed and extremely passionate approach. 


“Looking at the line-up, there are so many fast riders at the start that it will be like a mini Dakar. It will be exciting and fun at the same time. I know the race format and the terrain as this is my second time competing in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge. We will try to give our best and be fast on the dunes as we lost many points with a DNF in round 1 in the championship”.



Lining up alongside Branch will be Franco Caimi. Despite suffering a fractured right wrist in an accident one month before the Dakar, the Argentinean is now feeling positive about his recovery and prospects this season. 


“I tried my best to race the Dakar anyway, but It was not possible because it would have been too risky to compete with the plate and 9 screws in my wrist”, explained Caimi. “I am still recovering so my goal is to regain step by step my confidence and my speed to give the team the best possible result. I have good memories of this race, even though last November we had some technical issues with the bike on the second stage so I couldn’t finish the rally. I really like the sand and I look forward to meeting with the team again. We have a new hero, Ross Branch, and Joaquim. The goal is to race the whole championship and be as fit as possible soon to give my best”.