Abu Dhabi: Defending drivers’ champion Nani Roma of Spain powered his Mini to the fastest time on the super special spectator stage on day one of the 2014 Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge on Saturday. Fellow-countryman Joan Barreda Bort topped the bikes category on his Honda.
The Spaniard made it clear how highly he valued last year’s success, which helped lay the foundations for the Dakar Rally triumph that followed in January.
“It was an amazing feeling to win last year,” said Roma, partnered by French co-driver Michel Perin in one of six ALL4 Racing Minis built by the powerful German-based X-Raid team. “I had tried several times before, on a motor cycle as well as in cars, but I couldn’t do it. Last year it was one of my best victories, because I really felt sick on the second day and was on antibiotics to get me through.”
“The Desert Challenge is a very good event for us at a nice time of the year. The conditions are tough. It’s not easy to keep going all day in the dunes, and it’s a good event for us to test the car and make improvements.”
The next three days feature the ADNOC (269-km), Qasr Al Sarab (256-km) and Nissan Patrol (239-km) special stages, all centred on the desert bivouac, before the 244-km Abu Dhabi Aviation stage takes the survivors back to the finish on Yas Island on Thursday.
The only drivers to have successfully defended their Desert Challenge titles since the event was launched in 1991 are Stephane Peterhansel in 2002 and 2003, Jean-Louis Schlesser who won in 1994 and 1995, and three years in a row from 1999, and the UAE’s Mohammad Matter, winner of the first two events.
Roma is full of praise for the way the event is run, and promoted, by its founder, Mohammad Bin Sulayem, President of the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE and FIA Vice-President.
He said: “Mohammad and his team work hard to make the rally better every year, and it’s always a pleasure to be in Abu Dhabi. He has invested to make sure there is good TV coverage and that is very important.
“I did four rallies last year and the Desert Challenge was the only one that was seen in Spain. It was on TV every night, and this is why so many of the top car and bikes teams come to Abu Dhabi.”