Polish driver Jakub Przygonski and UAE-based South African rider Aaron Mare set the pace on the first leg of the Dubai International Baja powered by Nissan and AW Rostamani while home favourite Khalid Al Qassimi was a major casualty in the Al Qudra desert.
Partnered by Belgian co-driver Tom Colsoul in a Mini John Cooper, Przygonski won the opening day’s 174km special stage on Friday by 2mins 6 secs from Russians Vladimir Vasilyev and Konstantin Zhiltsov in the second round of this year’s FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies.
Saudi Arabia’s Yasir Hamed Seaidan, alongside Russian co-driver Aleksei Kuzmich, were third fastest on the day, another 3m 37s away in their Toyota Hilux.
But there was disaster for top seeded Al Qassimi and French co-driver Xavier Panseri as their Peugeot Abu Dhabi Racing Team 3008 DKR went out with mechanical failure just 70km into the stage.
With Czechs Martin Prokop and Jan Tomanek fourth fastest in a Ford F-150 Evo, the UAE’s Mansoor Al Helei and Khalid Al Kendi in a Nissan Pick-up and Thomas Bell with Patrick McMurren in a Nissan Navara completed the top six.
Lying ninth overall in a Polaris RZR, Ukrainian Vadym Prytuliak led the buggies category and was on course for a second successive Dubai Baja title.
In the battle of the bikes, Mare grabbed a 32-second first leg lead from Kuwait’s Mohammed Jaffar in the first round of this year’s FIM Bajas World Cup, despite a crash which left him nursing sore wrists.
French rider Benjamin Melot, last year’s runner-up, is another 1m 37s away in third place. Top-seeded UAE rider Mohammed Al Balooshi was fourth fastest on the day a further 1m 2s adrift, with his brother Sultan and Italian Manuel Lucchese completing the top six.
Aiming for a successful quads title defence in Dubai, Kuwait’s Fahad Al Musallam made the perfect start on his Yamaha 700 Raptor, opening up nearly a 15-minute lead over Russian rider Aleksandr Maksimov on another Yamaha.
Przygonski, runner-up in last year’s FIA World Cup series, said: “It was a really fast stage in the dunes. I pushed hard and passed three cars (Prokop, Al Qassimi and Vasilyev). It was easy terrain, some soft sand and dunes, but no major issues.”
Vasilyev, who scored back-to-back victories in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge in 2014 and 2015, now needs a big effort if he is to secure a third World Cup rally triumph in the UAE, although Przygonski can afford no mistakes or mishaps.
Mohammed Ben Sulayem, president of the Automobile and Touring Club for the UAE and Emirates Motor Sport Federation, and FIA vice president for sport, said: “We’ve had a very interesting first day and no-one can afford to relax because anything can happen in cross country rallying.”
Seaidan, fifth overall in last year’s FIA World Cup standings and fifth in Russia recently, said: “It was a great drive and the terrain was good with no problem. The car is running perfectly.”
It was certainly not a comfortable day for bikes leader Mare who said at the end of the stage: “It was really good apart from a big crash coming off a dune. I hurt both wrists. The second part was fast with steep dunes and a lot of concentration needed.”
Second-placed Jaffar said: “I had an amazing day. The route was nice and the bike is much better than before. I felt very comfortable. It was a great ride and the bike performed well. It’s more about reading the desert than navigation.”
UAE-based Balooshi added: “Opening the route isn’t easy. There weren’t any tracks to follow so it was really difficult for me but I made the most of it and I’m hoping for the best.”
After Thursday night’s ceremonial start at Dubai Autodrome, 46 cars, buggies, bikes and quads headed out into the dunes and plains of the Al Qudra desert which will be repeated on Saturday. The survivors reach the finish at Dubai Autodrome at 16:30.
Provisional leading positions after AW Rostamani Arabian Automobiles Special Stage 1:
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