Abu Dhabi Racing’s Sheikh Khalid bin Faisal Al Qassimi and co-driver Khalid Al Kendi are set for a new experience in unchartered terrain when the Qatar Cross Country Rally gets underway Tuesday with the Super Special Stage at Losail Circuit.
The Qatar Cross Country Rally will be an entirely new experience for Sheikh Khalid as the terrain is totally different from the Dubai International Baja where he finished second, and the dunes of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, which he won. With those two finishes, Sheikh Khalid now leads the FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies championship.
Qatar’s Nasser Saleh Al Attiyah is still recovering from injury, but he has only ever been beaten once on this event – when he suffered an engine failure on his Buggy in 2013 – and the two-time Dakar champion will be hoping to bounce back into title contention over the four desert selective sections of his home round of the FIA World Cup.
Sheikh Khalid was hoping to test his Peugeot 3008 DKR and check the set up, but unfortunately, the car arrived late, in fact just before sunset, and hence no testing was possible. However, he did get to drive it around a bit a get a feel of the car.
Sheikh Khalid said: “This is going to be an entirely new experience for me and I am really looking forward to it. The terrain will be different from that in Dubai and the dunes of Abu Dhabi, but I am here to gain new experience in this format of racing and hopefully it will be a successful experience.
“Our car arrived late at the testing area so we had no opportunity to do a pre-race test and check the set up, but still I am looking forward to a good five days of racing and bring the car home safely with a good result.”
The Super Special Stage over a distance of 4.85km will be held at Losail.
Ahead of a quality field of 32 cars, 13 motorcycles and seven quads lies a daunting route of nearly 2,000 kilometres that will take competitors to the outermost reaches of the State of Qatar in a demanding, dusty and sandy trail.
The fourth round of the FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies and round two of the FIM Cross-Country Rallies World Championship has attracted the leading contenders in all the relevant categories and the scene is set for a fascinating tussle for supremacy.
The car category has strength in depth: Saudi Arabia’s Yazeed Al-Rajhi drives the first of three X-raid built Minis and Al Attiyah’s team at Overdrive Racing fields additional Toyota Hiluxes for Aron Domzala, Erik van Loon and Leeroy Poulter.
Qatar’s Mohammed Abu Issa drives one of the Minis and the former quad category winner lies second in the Drivers’ Championship after three rounds.
Adel Abdulla is the defending FIA T2 World Champion in his Nissan Patrol, but the Qatari has endured a difficult start to the defence of his title. Saudi Arabia’s Yasir Saeidan and Abu Dhabi Racing’s Mansour Al-Helai have stolen a march through the first three rounds.
Red Bull KTM Factory Racing, Rockstar Energy Husqvarna Factory Racing and the Monster Energy Honda Team are all in attendance in Qatar to head the motorcycle category. There are seven official factory riders, with Sam Sunderland, Matthias Walkner and Antoine Meo representing KTM, Pablo Quintanilla and Pierre Alexandre Renet wheeling out a pair of Husqvarna FR450s and Paulo Goncalves and Kevin Benavides entered by Honda.
Sunderland is the man of the moment. He won the Dakar Rally this year and played the tactical game to perfection to move into an eight-point lead in the FIM Cross-Country Rally World Championship by winning in Abu Dhabi.
The Dubai-based Briton was pushed hard in the UAE by all his rivals and both Quintanilla and Goncalves, in particular, will be hoping to put the disappointment of missing out on a win.
Abu Dhabi Racing’s Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi became the first Emirati to win the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge since Mohammed Mattar won the two non-championship races way back in 1991 and 1992 on Thursday.
Al Qassimi made the most of Qatar’s Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah’s misfortune to secure the victory in a battling drive.
Dubai-based Briton Sam Sunderland and Kuwait’s Fahad Al-Musallam also secured overall victories after the final dramatic Abu Dhabi Aviation-sponsored stage of 219.76km.
Al Attiyah appeared to be cruising to victory in the cars until he rolled his Overdrive Racing Toyota Hilux heavily before the opening passage control. Despite continuing for a short while after a long delay, he retired the damaged car.
Al Qassimi and navigator Khalid Al-Kendi had put their previous day’s troubles behind them and were pushing hard to the finish to keep the pressure on their rivals. Their determination was duly rewarded with a superb victory that gives the Abu Dhabi driver a 33-point lead in the FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies after three rounds.
A delighted Al Qassimi will take many positives from his debut in the Abu Dhabi Racing Peugeot 3008 DKR. Delays on day four aside, Al Qassimi has adapted well to cross-country rallying in a short space of time and his victory throws the FIA World Cup wide open. His winning margin was 41min 26sec.
“I think this is the first win on an FIA World Cup round for an Emirati in 27 years. This event has been in the series for 25 years and this is also a first for an Emirati,” he said. “I don’t want to be so greedy. I am still learning and for me every day is a learning curve. This is only my fourth or fifth cross-country.
“I am pushing myself to a good level. The team itself, all of us, had a good effort. We had a lot of problems. That’s why they call it cross-country. You keep pushing.
“It is good for myself and for Abu Dhabi. It’s an Abu Dhabi event. It is fantastic for everyone that we won this rally. It’s a big boost winning this rally.”
A fascinating tussle ensued for supremacy in the motorcycle and quad categories. Honda’s Paulo Goncalves began the last stage with a lead of 33.8 seconds, but starting order is crucial in this form of cross-country rallying and Dakar champion Sam Sunderland delivered a stunning ride on his Red Bull KTM 450 Rally to seal the stage win and earn his first Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge victory.
Starting eighth on the road was an obvious advantage and the Dubai-based rider’s strategy paid off handsomely. Chile’s Pablo Quintanilla bounced back from recent career setbacks to claim second place on his Rockstar Energy Husqvarna – 6min 13.7sec behind the winner – and Austrian Matthias Walkner won the battle with Goncalves for third place.
“It feels cool, it’s been a long time coming,” said Sunderland. “This is my home race. I made a good start and it’s been the perfect race for me. It started well but it’s been really hard.
“I knew that I had to push hard this morning to make up the time quickly and that the first section was important. The team has been great, the bike’s been fantastic and it’s a great way to follow up the win in Dakar.”
Ride to Abu Dhabi’s Mohammed Al Balooshi was the leading Arab finisher in seventh position.
“Very happy to finish this rally,” said Al Balooshi. “It was tough. All the respect to the guys who finish ahead of me. They are super athletes
“I could not have done this without my team at Ride to Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi Sports Council and all my sponsors. Without them, this sport is difficult. They play a key role.”
Abu Dhabi Racing had a busy day at the office on Stage 4 of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge on Wednesday, losing over one hour while fixing a broken drive shaft.
Despite this setback, Sheikh Khalid bin Faisal Al Qassimi successfully defended his overall second place position going into the final day, as Qatar’s Nasser Al-Attiyah extended his lead in the cars category to 1hr 46min 03sec over the Emirati driver.
Al Qassimi and co-driver Khalid Al Kendi had multiple problems on the day, first an issue with the dampener on steep bumpy slopes and then, about 120km into the stage, the drive shaft broke which needed to be replaced.
That wasn’t the end of their issues as about 70km out from the finish, the car nosedived into a gully and getting the Peugeot 3008 DKR back on track took more than half an hour more.
“Today was a very tough day,” said Al Qassimi. “When we started out it was very windy and some 60km into the stage, which was very bumpy, we noticed that the dampener was not performing well.
“We balanced our pace but when I noticed there were fewer bumps I went faster. Unfortunately, about 120km into the stage we broke our drive shaft. We had a replacement but dismantling the broken shaft and then replacing it took about 50 minutes.
“Tough day with multiple issues to deal with, but we are still P2 overall.”
Al Qassimi goes into the final day on Thursday with a cushion of 34min 05.3sec to overall third-placed Martin Prokop from the Czech Republic.
The scene is set for a dramatic showdown in the motorcycle category over the closing stage on Thursday. Victory on stage four fell to the Monster Energy Honda team rider Kevin Benavides, but the Argentinean lost his chance of taking the win with clutch issues on day three and a fascinating five-way battle is in prospect over the closing kilometres between overnight leader Paulo Gonçalves, Austrian Matthias Walkner, Pierre Alexandre Renet, Sam Sunderland and Pablo Quintanilla.
Gonçalves holds an advantage of 33.8 seconds over the Austrian, but both Sunderland and Quintanilla have favourable starting positions for the final day.
Sunderland, the reigning Dakar champion, said: “I don’t really like to race like this. The strategy and trying to see what the others guys are doing. I’d rather it just be the fastest rider won. I’ve lost this race so many years by being the fastest dude. This year I have been trying to get the strategy better. We will see how we go. I will have to ride as hard as I can to catch the time back. It may look easy on the paper but it’s far from it. You have to fight a lot and work hard.”
Leader Gonçalves was in determined mood, adding: “Today I do what I can. I catch the guys in front of me, so I am the leader overall on day four. We have a day more to race. I will to do my best. I know it is not going to be an easy start position for tomorrow. We have 220km still to go. The bike has been perfect. The stage is a little faster tomorrow than the last three days, but we also have a lot of dunes in the middle. In normal conditions the others have an advantage. We never know.”
UAE’s Mohammed Al Balooshi had not ridden this KTM in race conditions since crashing heavily in Qatar last year, but the Ride to Abu Dhabi star holds seventh place.
“Today’s stage was by far the shortest and the weather helped all the riders,” said Al Balooshi. “We don’t have navigation problems and I am happy with my performance and comfortable with the bike. It’s not an easy job. I did not ride this bike since one year ago in Sealine Rally in Qatar. One year not riding a rally bike. We have one more day and I am looking at the bigger picture even though I would love to compete with the guys. With the situation I have given myself, I am giving 100 per cent.”
Thursday’s final stage, named Abu Dhabi Aviation, will see drivers cover a distance of 234km, the shortest stage of the five-day endurance race.
Positions after Leg 4 (unofficial):