Czech driver Martin Prokop retained his overall cars lead while Sam Sunderland made a big move towards a second successive bikes title, but it was Toby Price’s heartwarming gesture that stole the show on Day 3 of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge.
The Australian motorcyclist came to the rescue of UAE rider Mohammed Al Balooshi, who was knocked unconscious following a crash near the end of the 281km Al Ain Water Stage and left stranded in the Liwa Desert.
Red Bull KTM rider Price, 30, stopped and waited with Al Balooshi, who was airlifted to hospital, with Price going on to complete the third leg in 11th place in just over four hours, leaving him 35mins 51secs off the lead of stage winner and overall leader Sunderland.
Price, who was crowned Desert Challenge and Dakar Rally champion in 2016, and is considered one of the world’s top cross country riders, holds little hope of catching Sunderland to claim a second win in the Emirates, but said that never entered his thinking when he came across his stricken colleague.
“Rider safety is so important and I’d happily throw a race to make sure a rider is okay,” said the New South Wales native.
“I had a good day but it was a bad day for him as right near the end he fell off his bike, so I stopped to make sure he was okay and waited for the helicopter to pick him up.
“I was happy to do with that. He got a bit of a knock on the brain so I’m just thankful I was there and I hope he will be OK. I would stop any day to help someone. You want everyone to be safe and go home at the end of the day.”
Price crashed on the Nissan Stage on Day 2, coming home in 11th to effectively curtail his chances of glory.
And the motocross veteran admitted accidents are a dangerous element of the sport that is not highlighted too much, due to the fact that when it does happen riders are often stranded without help, putting them in harmful situations.
“It is a dangerous aspect of the sport,” he said.
“We bikers are out there in the elements and alone, it’s not something mentioned often but when you come across someone laying on the ground you hope for the best.
“He’s (Al Balooshi) a good guy and a good friend and I’m sure if it was me out there he would have done the same. It’s nothing out of the ordinary, it should happen to anyone in the same situation.”
Al Balooshi, racing for his own Balooshi Racing KTM team, was transferred to Madinat Zayed Hospital and is being kept under observation for 24 hours. Although concussed, he has no other injuries. But he will not re-start the rally.
Speaking from his hospital bed Al Balooshi paid tribute to Price, saying: “The day was going really well for me. Toby came by me before the refuel and the day got even better because I was happy to ride with somebody so fast. I was really honoured to be doing the stage with him.
“After the refuel we were riding together and I went to take the lead, and then I honestly don’t remember what happened next. I only remember that Toby stopped to help me and I have to give big thanks to him for being such a great champion who showed such sportsmanship.”
The recent Dubai International Baja winner was clearly shaken, but not seriously injured, adding: “He was there until I left the ground in the helicopter. He was talking to me all the time before the medics came, reassuring me.
“I think now I remember that the bike stalled before the accident. It was a mechanical problem not a rider error. Everything went so fast. I think I was out (unconscious) for about two minutes.”
After gearbox problems ruined his prospects 24 hours earlier, Frenchman Alphand recovered to win the Al Ain Water Stage with 3mins 42secs to spare.
Overnight leader Prokop was third fastest on the day to finish the leg with a reduced advantage of 8mins 40secs from Poland’s Jakub Przygonski, second quickest on the day.
The UAE’s defending champion Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi suffered a major setback, losing 30 minutes because of a broken drive shaft. While he retained third place overall, he now lies more than 45 minutes off the lead.
Dubai-based Sunderland, meanwhile, dominated on the bikes, winning the stage by just over six minutes from KTM team-mate Matthias Walkner to take a 7mins 34secs overall lead from the Austrian rider who succeeded him as Dakar Rally champion two months ago.
Argentinian Kevin Benavides was third-fastest on the day to finish the leg another 2mins 14secs further adrift, just ahead of overnight leader Pablo Quintanilla in fourth.
After a two-minute penalty had denied him the lead at the end of the first leg, Alphand had a dreadful time on Monday’s Nissan stage, plummeting down the field because of gearbox problems.
From the start on Tuesday, however, the 2006 champion was flying across the dunes with all the style and confidence that made him the World Cup downhill skiing champion before he switched to motorsport in 1997.
Overall cars leader Prokop said: “It was a very nice stage today. We don’t want to say it is easy but we made no mistakes, our navigation was good, we found a good rhythm and had a lot of fun.”
Alphand added: “It was a perfect day for us. The car was really good, especially in the dunes – we really enjoyed it.”
Al Qassimi said: “We had a broken drive shaft 30kms in and we had to stop for 30 minutes. There were lots of big, scary dunes today.”
In the Bikes, Dubai-based Sam Sunderland dominated winning the stage by just over six minutes ahead of KTM team-mate Matthias Walkner to take the overall lead.— ATCUAE (@ATCUAE_NEWS) 27 March 2018
Argentinian Kevin Benavides on a Honda was third fastest today.@Sundersam @MatthiasWalkner @kmbenavides pic.twitter.com/C5FC2Bcilo
In the battle of the bikes, Quintanilla clearly had a tough time opening the stage, and by the first checkpoint his 1min 8secs overnight lead had virtually been wiped out by Sunderland who immediately began pulling away.
It was the most emphatic way to show that he has fully recovered after injuring his back in Peru while defending his Dakar Rally title in January.
New bikes leader Sunderland said: “It was a very good day. We benefitted from the earlier start which made it easier to read the tracks. A really good stage and I’m confident I can hold my position.”
Provisional leading positions after Al Ain Water Stage 3:
Al Tareq Al Ameri believes Ferrari have sent out a strong message to their rivals following Sebastian Vettel’s Australian Grand Prix triumph and believes it will be good for the sport if he can regain his world title in Abu Dhabi.
Vettel could not have asked for a more perfect start to 2018 with a dramatic victory in Melbourne on Sunday – the second successive year he has won Down Under.
But with Romain Grosjean stopping on the track which forced officials to impose a virtual safety-car, the Ferrari driver made the most of his pit-stop to leapfrog the Brit and cross the finish line first.
Fans will be hoping this is just the start of what could be a fascinating title race after Hamilton clinched his fourth world championship with three races to spare last year.
And Yas Marina Circuit CEO Al Ameri says Vettel’s win bodes well for the season ahead and hinted if he can claim his fifth world title, there could be a ‘big celebration’ in the UAE capital.
“It looks good so far after Vettel’s win and I feel it is a positive sign for Ferrari,” he said. “I think that goes to the strength of the brand Ferrari. If he can win it here it will be like big celebration here in Abu Dhabi.”
Since Vettel won his last crown in 2013, Mercedes have been the dominant force on the track with Hamilton winning three of the last four titles (2013, 2014, 2015) and ex-driver Nico Rosberg triumphing in 2016.
But Al Ameri fears F1 might go ‘stale’ if Hamilton and Mercedes continues their dominance in the future. “You need to see a different champion otherwise things will go stale,” he said.
There’s still a long way to go before the elite drivers head to the capital in November but preparations are already underway for the season-finale.
The November 23-25 event will be the 10th anniversary of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and Al Ameri says they have no issue in being the last race on the calendar.
“We have transformed to what needs to be one of the last races on the calendar. We are fully 100 per cent behind it to make it work for us and I think for us and the stakeholders have achieved that,” he said.
Speaking on whether he would be hopeful of hosting a title decider this year, he added: “It’s good in both scenarios. One with a title decider and one without a title decider. I think both of them are of their own merits but maybe for a certain segment of our community, yes they would prefer a title decider.”
French driver Luc Alphand thought he had taken the lead in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge but dropped to second place after collecting a two minute time penalty for exceeding the speed limit in a restricted area.
That has saw Poland’s Jakub Przygonski take the lead at the end of the first leg, whlie Toby Price is top in the bikes category.
Partnered by German co-driver Andreas Schultz in a Buggy Ford 2WD, Alphand had claimed the opening 276 km Yas Marina Circuit Stage by 1 min, 19.8 secs from the recent Dubai International Baja winners with Poland’s Jakub Przygonski and Belgian co-driver Tom Colsoul in Mini John Cooper.
But Alphand’s error means Przygonski will now start the second stage in first place.
Ending the first leg in third place in the cars category another 1 min 48.7secs away were Saudi Arabia’s Yasir Seaidan accompanied by Russia’s Aleksei Kuzmich in a Toyota Hilux Overdrive.
The UAE’s defending champion, Khalid Al Qassimi, finished the day in fourth place, just under nine minutes off the lead alongside French co-driver Xavier Panseri in their Peugeot Abu Dhabi Racing Team 3008 DKR.
Czechs Martin Prokop and Jan Tomanek in a Ford F-150 Evo and two-times Desert Challenge champions Vladimir Vasilyev and Konstantin Zhiltsov in a Mini Cooper rounded off the top six, while Emiratis Khalid Al Jafla and Ahmad Malik in a Nissan Trophy Truck finished the day in 10th.
Price, who captured the Desert Challenge title in 2016, produced an impeccable display to take the stage by 2 mins 51 secs from Dubai-based defending champion Sam Sunderland, with reigning Dakar Rally winner Matthias Walkner of Austria completing a KTM 1-2-3 another 4 mins 29 secs away.
Argentinian Kevin Benavides on a Honda, Chile’s Pablo Quintanilla riding a Husqvarna and American Ricky Brabec on another Honda completed the top six.
With the world’s top cross country rally stars setting a tremendous pace up front, leading UAE rider Mohammed Al Balooshi, winner of the recent Dubai International Baja, finished the leg in ninth place.