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.”
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