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.”
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.”