Abu Dhabi Racing’s Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi became the first Emirati to win the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge since Mohammed Mattar won the two non-championship races way back in 1991 and 1992 on Thursday.
Al Qassimi made the most of Qatar’s Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah’s misfortune to secure the victory in a battling drive.
Dubai-based Briton Sam Sunderland and Kuwait’s Fahad Al-Musallam also secured overall victories after the final dramatic Abu Dhabi Aviation-sponsored stage of 219.76km.
Al Attiyah appeared to be cruising to victory in the cars until he rolled his Overdrive Racing Toyota Hilux heavily before the opening passage control. Despite continuing for a short while after a long delay, he retired the damaged car.
Al Qassimi and navigator Khalid Al-Kendi had put their previous day’s troubles behind them and were pushing hard to the finish to keep the pressure on their rivals. Their determination was duly rewarded with a superb victory that gives the Abu Dhabi driver a 33-point lead in the FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies after three rounds.
A delighted Al Qassimi will take many positives from his debut in the Abu Dhabi Racing Peugeot 3008 DKR. Delays on day four aside, Al Qassimi has adapted well to cross-country rallying in a short space of time and his victory throws the FIA World Cup wide open. His winning margin was 41min 26sec.
“I think this is the first win on an FIA World Cup round for an Emirati in 27 years. This event has been in the series for 25 years and this is also a first for an Emirati,” he said. “I don’t want to be so greedy. I am still learning and for me every day is a learning curve. This is only my fourth or fifth cross-country.
“I am pushing myself to a good level. The team itself, all of us, had a good effort. We had a lot of problems. That’s why they call it cross-country. You keep pushing.
“It is good for myself and for Abu Dhabi. It’s an Abu Dhabi event. It is fantastic for everyone that we won this rally. It’s a big boost winning this rally.”
A fascinating tussle ensued for supremacy in the motorcycle and quad categories. Honda’s Paulo Goncalves began the last stage with a lead of 33.8 seconds, but starting order is crucial in this form of cross-country rallying and Dakar champion Sam Sunderland delivered a stunning ride on his Red Bull KTM 450 Rally to seal the stage win and earn his first Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge victory.
Starting eighth on the road was an obvious advantage and the Dubai-based rider’s strategy paid off handsomely. Chile’s Pablo Quintanilla bounced back from recent career setbacks to claim second place on his Rockstar Energy Husqvarna – 6min 13.7sec behind the winner – and Austrian Matthias Walkner won the battle with Goncalves for third place.
“It feels cool, it’s been a long time coming,” said Sunderland. “This is my home race. I made a good start and it’s been the perfect race for me. It started well but it’s been really hard.
“I knew that I had to push hard this morning to make up the time quickly and that the first section was important. The team has been great, the bike’s been fantastic and it’s a great way to follow up the win in Dakar.”
Ride to Abu Dhabi’s Mohammed Al Balooshi was the leading Arab finisher in seventh position.
“Very happy to finish this rally,” said Al Balooshi. “It was tough. All the respect to the guys who finish ahead of me. They are super athletes
“I could not have done this without my team at Ride to Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi Sports Council and all my sponsors. Without them, this sport is difficult. They play a key role.”
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