Matthias Walkner took full advantage of Sam Sunderland’s starting position to take the overall lead in the bikes category while Pierre Alexander Renet claimed the stage win on Monday at the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge.
Walkner finished the 289.39km second stage of the event through the Rub Al-Khali in third place at 4hr 08min 53.0sec behind Frenchman Renet (Husqvarna 450 Rally) and Portugal’s Paulo Gonçalves (Honda 450 CRF Rally), but that was enough to give the Austrian KTM Red Bull Factory team rider sole possession of the overall lead.
Sunderland’s starting position meant that the overnight leader was hardly going to win the day’s stage and the Dakar champion ceded time to his rivals. He finished sixth in the stage and is fifth overall at 7hr 45min 57.5sec, with Walkner on 7:41.096.
There was no change in the cars category, with Qatar’s Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah in charge.
The Toyota driver claimed the fastest time, which meant he extended his lead over Abu Dhabi Racing’s Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi to 23min 03sec heading into the night halt at Qasr Al Sarab.
“I did not know that I was leading,” said Walkner after the finish. “Saying that, tomorrow they take the gap back. Hopefully, I can finish on the podium. Tomorrow, the guys will take three or six minutes and the lead is changing again. It has been a good two days and I feel more confident riding in the dunes. I get into it and I enjoyed it.”
Dubai-based Sunderland said: “You always lose time when you start in front. I opened all the way for nearly 300km (the stage) and only Pablo (Quintanilla) and Matthias (Walkner) physically caught me. Of all the riders here, that meant it was a good day.
“This race is strange with the strategy, you know. You kind of swap times each day. Tomorrow I start back and it will be the opposite. You just have to take each day as it comes.”
Al-Attiyah began the gruelling loop stage with a cushion of 11min 35.1sec over Sheikh Khalid and the Overdrive Racing Toyota Hilux driver pressed home his advantage from the front. Czech driver Martin Prokop produced another useful performance in the Jipocar Ford F-150 Evo to set the fourth quickest time behind Qatar’s Mohammed Abu Issa and the former WRC star leapt into third place in the overall rankings.
“Today was a good day for us. It was not an easy stage. It is very difficult and hard. We just need to take care. To win by a big gap and have a big lead from Al Qassimi is good,” said Al-Attiyah.
Sheikh Khalid admitted it had been a challenging day but insists the experience he is getting is invaluable.
“Today was much more difficult than yesterday. It was a bit windy and there was a lot of sand thrown up that hampered visibility and as a result we lost some time,” said the Emirati driver.
“We also had some difficulty climbing the steep dunes as the sand was very soft. We then were forced to find another line. But all in all, it was still a good day for us to finish second and hold on to our overnight position of 2nd overall. But, the goal is to continue learning and gaining experience in this format of racing.”
Poland’s Kamil Wisniewski maintained his lead in the quads from a charging group, even though the day’s stage win went to the Dutchman Kees Koolen on a Barren Racer One 690. Wisniewski now leads the class by 5min 42.8sec from Kuwait’s Fahad Al-Musallam.
On Tuesday, competitors tackle the second of three loop stages around the southern-most extremities of the UAE. The 288.73km special starts at the desert outpost of Tharwaniya off the road to Mezaira’a and winds its way through the towering dune complexes of the Rub Al-Khali to finish 19km north of Hameem.
The route passes the famed Moreeb Hill before heading south and running along the frontier with Saudi Arabia. It then returns to the bivouac for a refuelling stop for the bikes at PC1.
POSITIONS AFTER LEG 2
1. N Al-Attiyah (QAT)/M Baumel (FRA) Toyota Hilux Overdrive 7:18.377
2. K Al Qassimi (UAE)/K Al-Kendi (UAE) Peugeot 3008 DKR 7:41.408
3. M Prokop (CZE)/J Tomanek (CZE) Ford F-150 Evo 8:15.421
1. Matthias Walkner (AUT) KTM 450 Rally Factory 7:41.096
2. Paulo Gonçalves (POR) Honda 450 CRF Rally 7:41.418
3. Pierre Alexander Renet (FRA) Husqvarna 450 Rally 7:42.543
1. Kamil Wisniewski (POL) Yamaha Raptor 700R 9:56.084
2. Fahad Al-Musallam (KUW) Yamaha Raptor 700R 10:01.512
3. Rodolfo Schippers (GUA) Yamaha Raptor 700R 10:05.529
Qatar’s Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah, Dubai-based Englishman Sam Sunderland and Kuwait’s Fahad Al-Musallam claimed the fastest times in the car, motorcycle and quad categories on the two cross-over laps of the very short super special stage of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, held at the Al-Forsan International Sports Resort, on Saturday afternoon.
Behind the early pace-setters in their respective categories, former Czech WRC star Martin Prokop (Ford) and Russian Vladimir Vasilyev (Mini) and were second and third quickest in the cars behind Al-Attiyah’s Toyota Hilux. Sheikh Khalid Al-Qassimi’s first competitive kilometres in his new Abu Dhabi Racing Peugeot 3008 DKR resulted in a cautious sixth.
Frenchman Antoine Meo (KTM) and Chile’s Pablo Quintanilla (Husqvarna) rounded off the top three on two wheels behind Sunderland’s factory KTM. Aussie Lee Stephens pushed hard on his KTM 500 EXC to finish sixth, but is not eligible for the FIM World Championship.
Yamaha-mounted Al-Musallam, the winner of the recent Dubai International Baja’s quad section, snatched a 4.8-second lead over Dutchman Kees Koolen, while Peru’s Alexis Hernandez Ponce was third quad home.
Quads and motorcycles ran in pairs in reverse order, although local rider Mohammed Al-Balooshi was given the task of being the first bike and moving ahead of Pablo Quintanilla for the ceremonial start on his Ride to Abu Dhabi Team KTM.
Qatar’s Mohammed Al-Meer and Khalid Al-Mohannadi were non-starters from the original entry list and Dubai-based American dentist Mike Ziegler was demoted to a national category running behind the last T3 car after homologation issues with his Toyota Prado.
Saudi Arabia’s Ahmed Al-Malki, meanwhile, switched his Isuzu D-Max from T2 to the T1 category, but Colombian driver Antonio Marmolejo suffered mechanical issues and was not able to start at the 11th hour.
Seven cars started the event in the T2 category for series production cross-country vehicles and the fastest time fell to Saudi Arabia’s Yasir Saeidan in his Toyota Land Cruiser by a mere tenth of a second from the local driver Mansoor Al-Helai. Defending FIA T2 World Champion Adel Hussein finished several seconds behind in his Nissan Patrol.
First blood in the T3 section went to the Frenchman Patrice Garrouste in his Polaris RZR 100. Ahmed Al-Maqoodi, the winner of the 2016 Dubai International Rally, was second.
Sunday, the real meat of the desert action gets underway with the first of five selective sections of 276.59km.
The stage starts to the east of Arjan, south of Abu Dhabi, and finishes 19km to the north of Hameem on a major truck road en route to the event’s purpose-built bivouac near the remote Qasr Al Sarab desert resort. This is situated close to the desolate Rub Al-Khali and the Saudi Arabian frontier.
For the Emirati, this will be his second FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies event this year after participating in the Dubai International Baja earlier this month where he finished second behind Qatar’s Nasser Al Attiyah.
Confidence is certainly high for the 45-year-old as his 3008 DKR is the same car that he used during his strong showing at the Dakar Rally in January, however desert conditions this time round will prove a lot tougher on his all-conquering Peugeot.
“I did a good test. There were good lines where I can drive but also I struggled in some places. But I have to live with what I’ve got, I like the car and I like the team.” Al Qassimi said at the event’s Yas Marina Circuit launch.
“It will be a difficult race due to the impact of the nature of the sand dunes, especially when you first hit the hard surface. Don’t forget you will have over 80 bikers in front of you and then the cars, so the terrain will be very challenging.”
Although Al Qassimi is one of the world’s best drivers, navigating one of the sport’s most challenging routes in his two wheel car presents a difficult task, especially with Aron Domzala and Al Attiyah in such convincing form this season.
“The biggest challenge is how we can cross the two wheel drive car over full dunes for five to six days. It’s obviously important you don’t get stuck and spend too much time getting your car out of the sand.
“You want to get things right and I’ll be aiming for a good position, a top position. Battling a four wheel drive in the dunes is not an easy task, but if I avoid these problems, I can make it to the next step in a good position.”
A broken shaft punctured his chances of a podium finish in 2015, while mechanic issues also destroyed his hopes in last year’s edition of the race, but that’s all part of the experience of racing in these gruelling desert conditions.
However, after his successful start to the year – which notably included a second-place finish in Dubai this March – expectations are high that Al Qassimi can secure a podium result in the UAE capital.
But the driver is not thinking about that yet.
“The reality is you cannot walk before you crawl. I’m using my experience of rallying worldwide, but that experience doesn’t help me with cross country,” he said.
“People are saying I’m performing well, but the reality is, yes I’m performing well, but that’s because I’m pushing myself to performing well. We need to take the steps to ensure I can reach the top goal.
“My challenge is do my job but to be in the top 10 and be very close to the top 5.”
The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge gets underway on Saturday at Al-Forsan International Sports Resort.