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.”
The UAE’s Khalid Al Qassimi and Saudi Arabia’s Yazeed Al Rajhi will be battling the odds, and history, when they set off in pursuit of victory on Sunday in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge powered by Nissan.
After Saturday’s ceremonial start at Yas Marina Circuit, the rally begins in earnest with the 261.97km first of five desert stages running through the dunes and sabka plains of the Al Dafrah region in a route totaling 2,006km in length.
Al Qassimi, partnered by Frenchman Xavier Panseri, knows what it is like to win the event, having done so in 2017 as his focus switched from WRC to cross country rallying.
It had been 25 years since another Emirati, Mohammed Mattar, secured victory in the Desert Challenge which has seen Arab drivers find success only six times in its 28 previous editions.
While Ahmed Al Shegawi won the T2 production cars category last year, Al Rajhi is attempting to become the first outright Saudi winner, helped by German co-driver Dirk Von Zitzewitz.
In sharp contrast, Stephane Peterhansel and Cyril Despres are the two favouriters in an event which has brought 15 cars triumphs over the years for French drivers.
Accompanied by wife Andrea, Peterhansel is responsible for five of those victories, plus one in the bikes category, where Despres notched the other five by French riders before also switching from two wheels to four.
If an individual country’s success matters, Honda works team rider Joan Barreda Port could have a strong chance of denying KTM rival Sam Sunderland a second Desert Challenge bikes crown in three years.
Spain has scored 10 previous bikes victories in the event, eight of them by Marc Coma who won five times in a row from 2009, a sequence which might inspire his former KTM team-mate Sunderland as much as Barreda Port.
Looking to impress again in the company of the sport’s top riders is the UAE’s reigning FIM world champion Mohammed Al Balooshi who returns to action in the Desert Challenge looking for a top finish after engine failure prevented him from starting the recent Dubai International Baja.
“We’ve had so many great champions over the years, and I’m proud when I look at the long list of famous drivers and riders who have come here to win,” said Mohammed Ben Sulayem, president of the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE, the rally organisers, and FIA vice president for sport.
“Whether you’re a world-class competitor or an amateur enthusiast competing against the best in the sport, you can’t fail to be impressed by our record. It’s always interesting, as well as difficult, to guess who this year’s winners will be.”
The eyes of the cross country rallying world will be on the UAE capital when the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge Powered by Nissan starts on Saturday.
Held under the patronage of H.H. Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Ruler’s Representative in the Al Dafrah region, the event as ever is being organised by the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE (ATCUAE), the national motor sport authority.
The event forms the second round of the 2019 FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies for cars and buggies and the opening round of this year’s FIM Cross Country Rallies World Championship for bikes and quads.
A powerful line-up of 119 competitors from 34 countries have assembled at Yas Marina Circuit, rally HQ for the 29th edition of the Desert Challenge, which gets under way with a ceremonial 19:30 start on Saturday on the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix circuit.
At the official press conference held on Thursday, Mohammed Ben Sulayem, president of the ATCUAE and FIA vice president for sport, said: “Once more we are indebted to His Highness Sheikh Hamdan, and to the Abu Dhabi government, for their consistent support over the years to put the Desert Challenge on the world stage and continue its development.
“For everyone at the ATCUAE, as well as our sponsors and the volunteers who give up their time each year, this is a proud moment when we welcome competitors, support crews, officials and media from around the world.
“Many return year after year, and together we look forward to adding another chapter to the Desert Challenge success story.”
Al Tareq Al Ameri, CEO of Yas Marina Circuit, added: “Once again we are honoured to be playing a growing role in helping the ATCUAE ensure the rally continues to showcase Abu Dhabi as a world-class sporting destination.
“The Desert Challenge is widely recognised as one of the world’s best international cross country rallies, and Yas Marina Circuit is proud to support the event.”
Czech driver Martin Prokop faces a huge test as he looks to defend his cars title alongside Viktor Chitka.
Among his biggest rivals in the 39-vehicle FIA World Cup line-up are French star Stephane Peterhansel who scored the last of his five cars victories in 2011 and returns with wife Andrea as co-driver.
Heading the seedings list are the top two from this year’s World Cup standings following the first round in Qatar, Saudi Arabia’s Yazeed Alrajhi and Russia’s two-time Desert Challenge winner Vladimir Vasilyev.
Biding for his second Desert Challenge triumph is the UAE’s Khalid Al Qassimi, while Frenchman Cyril Despres, a five-times Desert Challenge bikes winner, is also hoping for success. The host country’s five-car challenge also sees Yahya Al Helei starting his 29th consecutive Desert Challenge.
Yasir Seaidan is one of five Saudi drivers entered. Compatriot Khaled Al Feraihi will be aiming to succeed fellow-countryman Ahmed Al Shegawi as winner of the T2 production cars category. Spain’s Jose-Luis Pena Campo returns to Abu Dhabi seeking a second successive buggies triumph.
If he is to secure his second bikes win in three years, KTM’s Sam Sunderland will have to overcome the threat from Argentina’s Kevin Benavides, the top seed on this occasion, as well as his Honda team-mates Joan Barreda Bort of Spain and Chile’s Jose Cornejo.
KTM’s Argentinian rider Luciano Benavides and American Husqvarna rider Andrew Short could also be in the hunt for victory.
With 41 riders contesting the opening round of this year’s FIM Cross-Country Rallies World Championship, Poland’s Rafal Sonik aims for a third quads category, with last year’s winner, Dutchman Kees Koolen, entering the bikes on this occasion.
After heading out from Abu Dhabi on Sunday morning for the first of five demanding desert stages, the rally will be based for four nights at a bivouac close to the Qasr Al-Sarab Desert Resort. The event finishes at 17:00 on Thursday, April 4, back at Yas Marina Circuit.