Rally cars entered the third day of the grueling 2,800 km six day race across Egypt’s Western Desert on Wednesday.
Just a few minutes apart, 34 drivers set off from the Giza Pyramids on Monday, competing in the Pharaons Rally, the penultimate race of the Federation Internationale De L’automobile (FIA) Cross Country World Cup.
Jostling for the this year’s crown are the current head of the leader board al-Mutaiwei Khalifa from the United Arab Emirates and last year’s Pharaons winner Jean Louis Schlesser from France, who is eight points behind his younger rival.
The Pharaons Rally offers double the usual points in a World Cup event. There are 60 points to the winner, 42 for second and 32 for third; making eight points between Khalifa and Schlesser a tight margin.
Schlesser drives a custom-made vehicle for his independent team, Schlesser Aventures. He has twice won the Paris-Dakar Rally and appeared confident minutes before he headed to the start line.
“Always in the Pharaons Rally I make always very good results, since two years I won and this year for sure I will try win. But there is a lot of cars this year, capable to win, there is roughly I think ten to twelve cars, very fast. But I try,” he said.
As defending champion Schlesser was the first driver to set off.
Rally star Khalifa admitted the competition was fierce ahead of his Pharaons debut.
'”I’m leading the World Championship now, but it’s not easy for me to say that I can win the race, but I will try my best. Because the competition between me and John-Louis for the points for the World Cup. And we will see after today and tomorrow, we will see where we're going to be,” said Khalifa referring to Schlesser.
Khalifa’s Mini was the second car to start, competing for the Faaza rally team.
President of the FIA, Nasser Khalifa al-Atya, says experience may have the advantage over youth in what he says is a particularly tough rally. And he knows the terrain, having competed in Pharaons 1992.
“This is one of the roughest stages I have seen in my life. It's really very hard for the competitor to manage, to find the right set-up for this terrain, you know. Sometimes the terrain is changing a lot during every 50k,” said al-Atya.
“That is sometimes very intelligent of the driver who has experience, like Jean Louis Schlesser or like Khalifa, now for the first time Khalifa will be here. So I'm sure the advantage for John is more now value for him to use his experience here. But we will see now the young age and big age what they will do together you know.”
Hosting the race for the 30th year, Egypt hopes a successful event will improve its international image and keep its place in the prestigious international sporting events calendar.
“For Egypt this is the only World Champion round that they have you know in motorsports or other sports, as a big event. This is really a tradition to come in Egypt; people like to enjoy here, to come as a competitor or visitors to see the culture of Pharaon, to see the pyramids, to see the other different cities here in Egypt,” said al-Atya.
Back at the pyramids, the spectators were small in number, with only the home teams managing to rouse a cheer from the onlookers.
As the last of the vehicles headed off across the desert the pyramids were left to their usual visitors moving at a slower pace.
Numbers of tourists are still down on what they were before the popular uprising of 2011 and camel owners do their best to drum up custom from those enjoying one of the Seven Wonders of the World in relative peace and quiet.
At the end of day one, defending champion Schlesser held a three second lead over Khalifa. Pharaons finishes back at the Giza pyramids on Saturday (Oct. 6).