Cyril Despres and Sam Sunderland emerged as the early pacesetters in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge Powered by Nissan on Sunday as a heavy sandstorm turned the opening leg into a battle for survival.
High winds churning up a wall of sand made visibility a constant problem as the 262km Yas Marina Circuit Stage wound its way through the dunes towards it conclusion at the bivouac, the rally’s desert base for the next four days on the fringe of the Rub Al Khali.
Partnered by Spain’s Daniel Oliveras, Frenchman Despres, five times a Desert Challenge bikes winner, made a positive start in pursuit of his first cars triumph at his second attempt on four wheels.
He completed the stage holding a 5min 45sec advantage over Dutchman Bernhard Ten Brinke and Belgian co-driver Tom Colsoul.
Chasing a sixth cars victory, eight years after his last and this time with wife and former rally star Andrea as co-driver, Stephane Peterhansel was just 1min 58sec further away in third.
Czech defending champion Martin Prokop and Viktor Chytka held fourth from Dubai Baja winners Jakub Przygonski and Timo Gottschalk. The UAE’s Khalid Al Qassimi and Xavier Panseri completed the top six.
While conditions were thoroughly demanding for the 34 drivers who started the second round of the FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies, they were particularly tough on the 33 bike and quads riders contesting the opening round of the FIM Cross Country Rallies World Championship.
Sam Sunderland, the 2017 Desert Challenge and Dakar Rally winner, produced a hugely impressive performance to lead by 6min 9sec from Andrew Short, the Texan quickly making an impact in cross country rallying after a rock star career in American Supercross and Motocross.
Chile’s Jose Cornejo was 37 seconds away in third with another young rising star, Argentinian Argentinean Luciano Benavides, 2min 21sec further behind, just ahead of elder brother Kevin.
UAE-based Mark Ackerman completed the top six while top Emirati rider Mohammed Al Balooshi had a rough day, finishing more than 42 minutes off the pace in eighth position.
“It was a day when we saw just how tough and demanding the Desert Challenge can be” said Mohammed Ben Sulayem, President of the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE and FIA vice president for sport.
Reaching the end of the stage, Despres said: “It has been a long time since I started a stage with a storm and strong winds as we had here today. I could not see the crest of the dunes easily. It was challenging.
“This was our first mission with new co-driver Daniel and we are getting to know each other. Also, I am not used to the desert you have here in Abu Dhabi, I need to get back and learn how to read the tracks much better.”
Brinke said: “It was a good day today. We started fourth so there were some good tracks to follow. We burst a tyre after jumping a dune and lost three or four minutes finding a safe spot to change it.”
Peterhansel, whose initial Desert Challenge success came as a rider back in 1996, had been unsure until 24 hours before the start whether wife Andrea would be alongside him in view of her problems with car sickness.
Reaching the end of the stage he said: “It was a good day. The car suffered no problems. The husband and wife team are doing well, and there were no sickness problems.”
Sunderland completed the stage to say: “I found the first leg difficult, battling low visibility in the sandstorm right from the start till the end. I tried to get a good rhythm throughout and avoid mistakes where possible.”
Reflecting on a challenging opening leg, UAE star Balooshi said: “I started second but Sam managed to catch me then (Kevin) Benavides and I got stuck a couple of times. It wasn’t meant to be for me.
“I thought the Desert Challenge would have been an easier experience after the Dakar Rally but it was extremely tough. But I did enjoy myself out there, it was a great challenge.”
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