Serving as round four of the FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies, the Qatar event covered a distance of 1,373.82km across five days and threw up unfamiliar surrounds for the Abu Dhabi Racing team.
Saturday’s final Al Zubara stage over a distance of 343.32km posed its own unique challenges, as Al Qassimi set out to balance his pace and protect his overnight position.
The result could have been even better for the team but for navigational issues on days two and three, where they lost precious time after Al Qassimi lost his way on several occasions.
Relatively new to endurance racing, Al Qassimi was pleased with his fourth place and the opportunity to develop his skills even further.
“It was a very difficult day for us as we started as the first car and we got lost after about 48km and so I decided to follow the cars in front of me,” he said. “But when I passed them I got lost again and it was really frustrating because I think I got lost about four times and maybe lost over seven minutes in the process.
“The important thing is we finished and it is a big learning curve for me and I need to learn a lot more in this kind of rally and gain a lot more experience, it is not easy. If you put me back on the stage, I will get lost again.
“The performance of the car is fantastic, that is why I won one stage and was second before that. My team tells me that if we don’t lose direction we can be in the top three which shows the performance is there. The learning curve continues for me.”
Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi Racing Junior Rally Programme driver Mansour Belhelei and co-driver Chris Patterson finished second overall in the T2 category aboard their Toyota Prado.
Abu Dhabi Racing’s Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi and Dubai-based Sam Sunderland set the fastest times in the cars and motorcycles sections respectively in the Qatar CrossCountry Rally on Friday.
Qatar’s Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah and Sunderland now have respective overall leads of 2min 56sec and 12min 34sec after another hot and windy day in the Qatar deserts. Sonik has a large advantage in the quads.
Abu Dhabi Racing’s Al Qassimi managed to edge in front of Poulter over the closing kilometres to win his first stage with a time of 3hr 22min 05sec and climb above Mohammed Abu Issa and into fourth place overall.
Al-Qassimi said: “The first 37km I catch Nasser and I kept behind him and I am learning and I want to see how he is driving. The first two days I lost a lot of time. Today was a good stage.”
Poulter held on to secure the second fastest time and that enabled him to reduce Al-Attiyah’s overall advantage heading into the final day. Poland’s Jakub Przygonski was fourth and holds third overall. But Al-Attiyah had been trouble free throughout and admitted that he slowed to group the front-runners together.
“Yes, it’s close but we did not take any risks,” said Al-Attiyah. “We open all the way and we stop for Khalid (Al-Qassimi) to pass. He does not want to pass. I don’t know why. After the second time, he never gave me the Sentinel. I stopped to let him pass. We decided to continue to bring everyone together for our strategy for tomorrow. I will try and catch Leeroy (Poulter) and stay with him all the way tomorrow.”
Sunderland started the day fourth on the road and defending a lead of 6min 28.9sec in t he bikes. Despite losing his way with two rivals early in the stage, the Red Bull KTM 450 Rally rider fought back to record the fastest time and will now take an advantage of 12min 34sec over Monster Energy Honda team rider Paulo Gonçalves into the final day.
“It’s not done until it’s done,” said Sunderland. “I made a few navigational mistakes early on and had a bit of stress this morning. I pushed a lot after the refuel and it ended up being a pretty good day. There were a couple of mistakes in the road book. From my point of view it was not so clear in a couple of places and it added a bit of confusion. It kind of snowballs. You try to rush after that. I feel strong. The plan is not to make a mistake now, but that isn’t always easy.”
Honda’s Kevin Benavides clocked the second quickest time to move up to fourth at the expense of Pablo Quintanilla of the Rockstar Energy Husqvarna Team. Stage opener Matthias Walkner was third on the stage and holds a similar position in the standings. Ride to Abu Dhabi’s Mohammed Al-Balooshi is eighth.
Gonçalves said: “Until now it was the most difficult stage. I think the road book miss a little information so, at more or less km80, we make a navigational mistake. We lost a lot of time and we arrived around 10 or 12km in the wrong direction. After, in the second part, we were able to try and push. Tomorrow I have an important day to race. The problem is to try and go fast without making a mistake.”
Alexis Hernandez caught Rafal Sonik and the pair rode close together for the much of the stage, but delays before PC1 for Dutchman Kees Koolen enabled Hernandez to climb back to second overall and Koolen also lost third place to Guatamala’s Rodolfo Schippers. Italy’s Camelia Liparoti was running in fifth place before losing a rear left wheel after 252km.
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