Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge & TeamFJ

Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge & TeamFJ

fjcruiser2Organised by the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE (ATCUAE), the event was the season-opening round of both the FIA Cross Country Rally World Cup and the FIM Cross Country Rallies World Championship

Entry to the 2010 Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge was open to cars and trucks complying with FIA T1, T2 and T4 technical regulations, as well as motorcyclists and quads running under FIM auspices.
This year, and to mark the 20th edition, the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge saw record level of competitors this with 44 entrants in the car category and more than 100 competitors in total.

The sunset start in the ‘shadow’ of the Grand Mosque flagged off a non-competitive liaison section that guided the drivers and bikers to the first overnight halt at Moreeb Hill, near Liwa, where the rally would be based for the next four days at a specially-prepared desert bivouac. Moreeb is part of the Empty Quarter, the world's largest uninterrupted sand mass.
Legs two, three and four featured demanding loop stages around Moreeb Hill, across somewhat challenging gatch tracks, winding desert trails and the region’s notorious towering sand dunes, considered to be the highest dunes in the Empty Quarter.

The fifth and final leg took place on Thursday, April 1, with teams tackling a desert section between Liwa to the event's finish in Abu Dhabi city.

X-Raid took home the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge over-all, team and T1 titles for the third consecutive year, this time with Russian Leonid Novitskiy at the wheel and German Andy Schulz by his side.
Team X-Raid’s Tina Thorner navigated successfully for Qatari Nasser Al Attiyah in 2008 and Frenchman Guerlain Chechirit in 2009, while Andy Schulz co-drove for Novitskiy this year. While Novitskiy’s eventual triumph in the cars category was predictable after he took a comfortable lead at the end of the first stage itself, the bikes saw fortunes fluctuating all through the final day today given that only minutes separated the top five.

Laurent Rosso played it safe for the second day running to ensure that his Team Fitech Nissan Patrol crossed the finish line to earn him a second place, while Emirati Abdul Bari Bin Sugat was pleased with his third place on the podium.

Bin Sugat’s late charge in the Challenge saw him eventually driving past Yannick Comagnac on a final day that could have gone either way, but driver acumen and Nissan endurance ensured the Emirati stood with Novitskiy and Rosso on the podium.

The Challenge never fails to surprise and stretch race teams to their limits, this year’s Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge one of the world’s toughest desert races was no exception for Team FJ.
In September 2008 when the ex-Baja 500 class winning Toyota FJ cruiser was imported from the US into the UAE by David Mabbs, a veteran of desert racing, Team FJ was established as one of the Middle East’s premier rally sports teams with its goals firmly set on showing the high budget factory race teams how to compete in the unforgiving desert terrain.
The car was originally built by Donahoe Racing (now Icon Vehicle Dynamics) in the United States at the request of Toyota North America to challenge for victory in the Score Stock Mini Series. In addition to victory in the Baja 500 it also finished second in class at the world famous Baja 1000 before making its way to the Middle East.

The Toyota FJ Cruiser which was developed throughout 2007, appears to be near standard to the untrained eye, save for a lift kit, but the development put into perfecting the suspension for all-terrain racing is the key to the cars success! The front end has suspension arms built by Total Chaos Fabrication and features twin Icon Vehicle Dynamics 2.5-inch bypass dampers with remote reservoirs and coil-over springs. An additional Light Racing Jounce shock was also fitted to each corner to cushion heavy landings and harsh impacts. “In the desert, suspension is king,” says Mabbs. “No matter how powerful the engine and how fast the driver, weak suspension will break within hours and we’d have no chance of competing with the works teams without attention to detail in this area”.

Team FJ’s preparations for the 2010 Challenge started in earnest in early February when they returned from the Saudi Arabian Hail Baja, a 1000km race in the north of the Kingdom. The car was fully serviced and race prepared after this grueling event and all logistics put in place for the 6 days of completion in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, this also included the arrival of 4 mechanics from the United Kingdom as well as a press officer / photographer and all of the Team’s supporters (12 in total) who make this event possible.

Following the technical and administration formalities, this year held in the grand settings of the Yas Marine Formula 1 race track, the team was ready for the opening stage of the event, a qualifying run where competitors get to set their fastest race times over a purpose built short desert race course. This year’s stage was unique for the Middle East as it comprised a ‘head to head’ course where two competitors get to fight it out at the same time, crossing past each other halfway through the stage. The Teams FJ is great on these stages as it’s nimble and easy to control and despite being one of the last cars to start due to the official ranking format, the Team took 5th place overall.

Racing in the Abu Dhabi desert challenge consists 5 days of tough desert terrain which see’s all of the 100 plus teams cover more than 2000km through the ‘empty quarter region’ of the emirate. The harsh and unforgiving landscape make this an ideal place for desert racing with the majority of the time being spent crossing the open desert landscape or high dune sections without tracks or well defined routes.
The first day consisted some 300km of competitive stage from the outskirts of the capital city through to the events main camp and service point in the oasis town of Liwa, the camp is set up at the base of the world’s largest sand dune, Moreeb hill, and offers competitors and spectators an unprecedented feel of the enormity and power of the desert. The day got underway at approximately 10.30am and proceeded on fast flowing tracks interspersed with tricky dune sections; these are often the worst as you can easily be caught out by terrain that looks so easy to pass thorough! Within the first 70km’s the Team had passed 2 vehicles and was focused on a good first day of hunting, however as they say in racing nothing goes to plan! Unfortunately after about 100km the FJ’s gearbox just stuck in neutral and the crew had to spend almost 1 1/2 hours repairing the fault. Following this frustrating stop the car was back on its way, picking off some of those who had passed to finish up the day 18th overall.

Some might say that the events of day one were a warning sign that this year’s event was not going to be a repeat of 2009 where the team took first in class and 5th overall, the following days certainly reflected that by pushing both the car, mechanics, driver and co-driver to the limits!
Day 2 saw the team back in action and they soon started to recover the places that had been lost on the previous day, by the first check point the team had passed 7 cars and had number 8 already in their sights. Day 2 however was once again to be slowed, this time by a drive shaft failure which cost the team nearly 2 hours at the day’s only service point halfway through the stage. This also meant that the Team had to traverse over 30km of high dunes in 2 wheel drive, not an easy task in a car that weighs in excess of 2 tons. Despite this the team still made it back with the 7th fastest time of the day just showing how tough this event really is.

The overnight service periods at the Moreeb camp were now becoming a ritual of how to fully rebuild a race car, the mechanic were on average working over 10 hours a night to prepare the car for the following days torture, some nights they never slept at all and were found tightening the last bolts right up until the point where the car was driven off to the start line. Despite this valiant effort day 3 and to some extent day 4 were to get the better of the car and the team. On the 70km road section to the start of day 3 the front differential finally said enough and seized forcing the team to retire shortly after taking the start line, this was subsequently fixed only for the same to happen towards the closing section of day 4, the resulting time penalties put the team out of contention for a top 5 overall placing but on the up side they were still in the race and by no way defeated.

The final, and much awaited last stage of the event saw the teams leave Liwa and head back to Abu Dhabi through another 300km of desert stage, with the car fully repaired the team had an excellent day, once we forget the fact that there was no clutch for most of it, and finished the stage with the 6th fastest time. Once back at Yas Marina the team gathered and pondered over the trials and challenges of the past week and all agreed that this has to be one of the greatest and toughest desert races in the world.

And that everyone can’t wait until next year to do it all again!

So where do we go from here…. “We intend to replace the engine with a single turbo 4.5-litre diesel version and up-rated transmission”. “Then, we will be back with a vengeance to prove that the Toyota FJ is capable of matching the factory teams” concludes Mabbs.


Final positions after Leg 5
01) Leonid Novitskiy (RUS) / Andy Schulz (GER), X-Raid (BMW)
02) Laurent Rosso (FRA) / Francois Borsotto (FRA), Fitech (NISSAN)
03) Abdul Bari-Bin Sugat (UAE) / Ali Mirza (UAE), Sugat (NISSAN)
12) David Mabbs (ENG) / Xavier Caminada (FRA), FJ (TOYOTA)


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