Astrakhan, Russia: Qatar’s Nasser Saleh Al Attiyah will be bidding for his first ever victory in the Silk Way Rally when he and French co-driver Matthieu Baumel line-up at the start of the first of seven special stages in Astrakhan on Saturday.
Al Attiyah drives a Toyota Hilux for Overdrive Racing, with support from Red Bull, the Qatar Motor and Motorcycle Federation (QMMF), Ooredoo Qatar and Toyota GAZOO Racing and run on the event by the Belgian car preparations company.
The Qatari will also be targeting a first ever win for the Japanese manufacturer at one of the world’s most famous cross-country rallies, where former winners include double Dakar winners Carlos Sainz and Jean-Louis Schlesser and Frenchman Cyril Despres, a five-time Dakar winner on a motorcycle and the Silk Way winner for the last two years.
After a couple of disappointing results in the FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies that made it mathematically impossible for the Qatari to retain his title in 2018, the decision was taken to concentrate on preparations for the Silk Way event and Al Attiyah is confident that he can achieve a first victory.
“I really enjoy the format of the longer cross-country rallies and the target is the outright win on stages that will be new and challenging,” said the Red Bull-supported two-time Dakar winner, who finished as runner-up to Sainz in 2010 – his only podium finish at the Silk Way Rally thus far.
“Matthieu and I have set the target and I know we have the car that is more than capable of taking the win against strong opposition.”
Baumel added: “We have not been able to test since Kazakhstan. We start the Silk Way Rally with some new technical components on the car and a new engine and we will test for one day before the race in Russia, close to Astrakhan. The race is important, but the most important is to have the car ready for the next Dakar.
The Silk Way Rally ran for the first time between Kazan in Russia and Ashgabat in Turkmenistan in 2009 and was then based in Russia between 2010 and 2013, where it featured in the ASO’s Dakar Series on three occasions.
Rally officials laid on a route between Moscow and Beijing - via Astana in Kazakhstan - in 2016 and last year’s edition started in Moscow and finished in Xi’an, China.
Rally organisers were forced to modify the original route for 2018 that had seen the intended event start at Xi’an and run over a two-week period to finish in Moscow. Logistical issues involving work being carried out to a runway that was to be used by vital cargo aircraft en route forced the dramatic changes in June.
Administration and technical checks will now take place at Astrakhan in Russia on July 19-20 and the entire rally will run through the country to a finish in Moscow on July 27, using around 2,500 competitive kilometres and sections through the Kalmykia desert that were used back in 2013.
Leg one will be a loop stage through the Takyr desert around Astrakhan on July 21 and then competitors will embark upon a Marathon stage without service assistance to the town of Elista on July 22. The compact route then returns to Astrakhan on the second half of the Marathon stage on July 23, before drivers tackle a second loop around Astrakhan in the Takyr desert on July 24.
The Silk Way Rally then begins its gradual path towards the Russian capital with the fifth high-speed stage on fast tracks running between Astrakhan and Volgograd on July 25 and the penultimate section heading in the direction of Lipetsk on July 26.
The final stage features difficult navigation and runs between Lipetsk and Moscow before the ceremonial finish in Red Square on July 27, where race officials hope the Russian President Vladimir Putin will be in attendance.