Stephane Peterhansel and Sam Sunderland remain the men to catch after a day of drama in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge set the scene for a thrilling last leg sweeping back to the UAE capital.
While Peterhansel extended his overnight cars lead to 18min 35sec from the UAE’s Khalid Al Qassimi, the trail of misfortune that stopped some of his main rivals in their tracks on the 286.10km ADNOC stage suggest that victory is anything but certain.
While the French five-time winner and wife Andrea had a smooth passage through the dunes of the Rub Al Khali, setting the day’s fastest time, three of the overnight top five had days to forget.
The biggest casualty was Bernhard Ten Brinke who was lying second but went out of the rally after the second of two incidents.
He reached the service halt with the roof damaged and a wheel needing to be replaced after the car rolled on the stage. Shortly after restarting, another accident ended with Ten Brinke and co-driver Tom Colsoul being transferred by helicopter to hospital in Madinat Zayed. Their injuries were not believed to be serious.
Czech Jakub Przygonski, fastest on the previous leg, failed to even start the stage because of mechanical problems. Defending champion Martin Prokop also saw his fading hopes disappear after a sequence of mechanical issues.
Al Qassimi was one of several drivers to be stopped by soft sand early on. He recovered and will find confidence in the fact that he started the final leg with a far greater deficit two years ago and went on to win.
Finishing the day in third overall another 27min 37sec adrift was Poland’s Aaron Domzala. Completing the top six were Russia’s two-time winner Vladimir Vasilyev followed by Brazil’s Reinaldo Varela and American Casey Currie who are separated by just 43 seconds in the fight for the T3 title.
Peterhansel said: “It was a long stage today, and luckily we didn’t get stuck and kept on moving as it was a very difficult stage for the cars, with very complicated dunes. I like it this way. If it’s too easy I find it boring.”
Al Qassimi added: “It was difficult and we got stuck on the first section a lot. There was a lot of soft sand and we’re in a two wheel drive car. But we’re here now. I’m not sure where we finished in the timings because of the amount of time we spent digging ourselves out.”
Sunderland’s bikes lead, meanwhile, was whittled down to a slender 18 seconds by Chile’s Jose Cornejo, an impressive stage winner.
The reward in cross-country rallying for winning a stage is being first away the next day, with no tracks to follow and the pack giving chase, and not for the first time overnight leader Sunderland felt the heat.
His was only the seventh fastest time, 12min 33sec slower than Cornejo who is now breathing down his neck, with the battle for the title looking very much like a two-bikes race to the finish, barring any final leg disasters for the leading pair.
Despite a difficult leg littered with time penalties, Qatari driver Mohammed Al Meer leads the T2 production class by more than nine hours from Latvian Aldis Vilcans. In the quads, Kuwaiti Fahad Al Musallam leads by 5min 38sec from Poland’s Rafal Sonik.
Cornejo said: “I was pushing today to try and recover as many minutes as possible. Who knows, if I win this stage it will make it hard for me tomorrow having to break the first tracks. I will fight to the end for sure.”
Sunderland reflected: “Another tough day especially with opening the stage. It always puts you at a disadvantage. I’m happy with the job I’ve done today and I only arrived with two other riders.
“Another long day and I’m really tired which is normal after a stage like this. You have to ride really technically as the colours of the dunes can be confusing.”
The UAE’s FIM World Cup champion Mohammed Al Balooshi ended the day in ninth place overall and said: “In the last 60km I found my rhythm, which was a good feeling – building up my confidence after my accident at the Desert Challenge last year. I’m happy to be back and focusing on the task.”
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