Stephane Peterhansel cruised to his sixth cars victory in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge while Sam Sunderland surged to his second bikes title in three years.
Adding to his status as the world’s most successful cross country rally competitor, Peterhansel claimed another distinction as he combined with wife Andrea over the Abu Dhabi Aviation Stage to become the first married couple to win an FIA World Cup rally.
Avoiding any of the dramas which held up each of their main rivals over five days of punishing desert driving, they took their Mini John Cooper Works Rally home by 8 mins 48 secs from the UAE’s Khalid Al Qassimi and Frenchman Xavier Panseri.
Brazilian Aron Domzala with Polish co-driver Maciej Marton claimed third place overall when one of the big casualties from the previous leg, Poland’s Jakub Przygonski , set the fastest stage time.
Peterhansel, who won the Desert Challenge bikes crown in 1996 before adding five cars triumphs between 2002-2011, had the look of a champion again from the moment he took the outright lead on the second leg.
“This is an incredible moment,” he said at the finish. “This win is unbelievably special to me and I’m overjoyed to share it with my wife. It was a very physical challenge inside the car, but we made it through and now my mind is on Dakar for us.”
Wife Andrea reflected: “This rally has been about much more than winning. There have been many tough days for us at the Desert Challenge and we have had to work hard and fight for every stage against strong competition.
“And I can say it has been a pleasure to navigate for Stephane. I knew he was a talented driver, but now I know for certain. Months of training have led up this, one of the hardest rallies for both bikes and cars. For sure it was demanding. But, if it worked here, it can work anywhere for us.”
Sunderland obliterated the opposition on the final leg, converting his slender 18 seconds overnight advantage into an 8 mins 20 secs winning margin from Argentine KTM team-mate Luciano Benavides, still a junior and recording his first FIM World Championship podium finish.
Chilean Jose Cornejo finished third, another 1 min 39 secs away, with Honda team-mate Kevin Benavides, and American Andrew Short and Britain’s Ryan Blair completing the top six.
Sunderland clinched his second Desert Challenge bikes title in three years with the kind of performance which stamps him as a rider few can match when he is in full flow.
Starting seventh with only a fragile lead over Chile’s Cornejo, he basically had the rally won with barely a quarter of the 214km Abu Dhabi Aviation stage completed as he pulled in the riders ahead with a brilliant surge from the start.
“I’m super happy with today and thankful for the team who have done a great job on the bike all week,” he said. “It’s great to start the world championship with this rally. Despite not having some of my teammates here, there is always someone fighting you for that top spot.
“It’s a strategic race so you have to push when it counts and know when to take care on the sections where there is nothing to gain.
“On paper it can look easy but it doesn’t always turn out that way. This year has been tricky with the wind on the earlier legs creating tough conditions and there were some difficult parts to navigate. It really made the rally the challenge it is supposed to be.”
Bikes runner-up Benavides added: “I’m really happy with today and a great result. I pushed to make up the time to take the second podium place. It wasn’t easy and with the leg being shorter than yesterday, I really had to push to catch the others and make up the time.”
Finishing fourth overall in the cars category, American Casey Currie secured the buggies title ahead of Brazilian Reinaldo Varela who was placed fifth ahead of two-time winner Vladimir Vasilyev of Russia.
Qatari driver Mohammed Al Meer won the T2 production class with a huge winning margin over Latvian Aldis Vilcans. Kuwaiti’s Fahad Al Musallam captured the quads title, winning by 1 min 13 secs from Poland’s Rafal Sonik.
“This has been another classic cross country rally, with all the ingredients that have built the reputation of the Desert Challenge over the years,” said Mohammed Ben Sulayem, president of the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE, the rally organisers, and FIA vice president for sport. “We now look forward to the 30th edition next year. The story goes on.”
Runner-up Al Qassimi said: “I have enjoyed today the most, my driving style was flowing with this difficult stage. We took some big risks with the car, pushing it to the limit to post a good time.
“The car did suffer some front end damage, but we made it across the line due to our relentless momentum all the way to the end.”
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.”