French driver Luc Alphand thought he had taken the lead in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge but dropped to second place after collecting a two minute time penalty for exceeding the speed limit in a restricted area.
That has saw Poland’s Jakub Przygonski take the lead at the end of the first leg, whlie Toby Price is top in the bikes category.
Partnered by German co-driver Andreas Schultz in a Buggy Ford 2WD, Alphand had claimed the opening 276 km Yas Marina Circuit Stage by 1 min, 19.8 secs from the recent Dubai International Baja winners with Poland’s Jakub Przygonski and Belgian co-driver Tom Colsoul in Mini John Cooper.
But Alphand’s error means Przygonski will now start the second stage in first place.
Ending the first leg in third place in the cars category another 1 min 48.7secs away were Saudi Arabia’s Yasir Seaidan accompanied by Russia’s Aleksei Kuzmich in a Toyota Hilux Overdrive.
The UAE’s defending champion, Khalid Al Qassimi, finished the day in fourth place, just under nine minutes off the lead alongside French co-driver Xavier Panseri in their Peugeot Abu Dhabi Racing Team 3008 DKR.
Czechs Martin Prokop and Jan Tomanek in a Ford F-150 Evo and two-times Desert Challenge champions Vladimir Vasilyev and Konstantin Zhiltsov in a Mini Cooper rounded off the top six, while Emiratis Khalid Al Jafla and Ahmad Malik in a Nissan Trophy Truck finished the day in 10th.
Price, who captured the Desert Challenge title in 2016, produced an impeccable display to take the stage by 2 mins 51 secs from Dubai-based defending champion Sam Sunderland, with reigning Dakar Rally winner Matthias Walkner of Austria completing a KTM 1-2-3 another 4 mins 29 secs away.
Argentinian Kevin Benavides on a Honda, Chile’s Pablo Quintanilla riding a Husqvarna and American Ricky Brabec on another Honda completed the top six.
With the world’s top cross country rally stars setting a tremendous pace up front, leading UAE rider Mohammed Al Balooshi, winner of the recent Dubai International Baja, finished the leg in ninth place.
Mohammed Al Balooshi could not have asked for a better start to his 2018 FIM Bajas World Cup campaign.
Just 11 days ago, the Emirati rider produced a sensational display to register one of his most impressive results of his career when he reigned supreme in the Dubai International Baja.
It was his first-ever triumph on home soil and when key rivals Aaron Mare and Kuwait’s Mohammed Jaffar retired, it presented an opportunity for Al Balooshi – one that he grabbed with both hands. He eventually found himself at the front of the pile and did just enough to hold off UAE-based French rider Benjamin Melot to cross the finish line.
In his own words, the triumph was “icing on the cake” but more significant was the improvement he made in the last 12 months.
“For me, I went there with the same mentality to do my personal best,” the 38-year-old told Sport360. “Last year, I finished second and this year I won the event. I wanted to improve my timing and skill-set. You cannot make up for lost time and I really wanted to give it a go. As long as there is progress then I’m happy but for sure the victory was the icing on the cake.”
Progress is exactly what Al Balooshi will be looking to do when he gets on his 450 Rally Replica at this weekend’s Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge.
According to the provisional entry list for the opening round of the FIM Cross Country-Rally World Championship, he is one of 14 riders that will be on the starting line when the race gets underway on Friday. But he faces an even bigger task of replicating his Dubai feat in the UAE capital.
Standing in his way is two-time defending champion Pablo Quintanilla, who headlines a strong field as well last season’s winner and 2017 Dakar Rally champion Sam Sunderland.
Al Balooshi is fully aware of the challenge that awaits him over the six legs and while he accepts another victory might not be possible, he’ll be happy just to complete the rally as long as he gives nothing but his best.
“As a competitor, I’ll by lying if I say that victory is not in my head,” said Al Balooshi, whose best finish in the capital was fourth in 2015. “That is why we race. I train every day to win. With my capability, I always go out there and give my best. It was the same with the Dubai International Baja. I did very well in that and was happy with my performance regardless of whether I won it or not.
“This is the best attitude going into any big races. If you do your personal best, whatever your result, you’ll be happy. That’s what I’ll be doing in Abu Dhabi.
“I’m ready to give 100 per cent. As a rider, you can go in and just complete the race, but for me it’s about doing better than last time.”
He added: “The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge is definitely one I’d like to win and it would be another milestone in my career. To be honest, I’m not thinking too far ahead because that can bring unnecessary pressure. But for me I’m really looking forward to riding on the high dunes over the next few days.”
One advantage that works in his favour is the knowledge of the dunes and terrains that he will face. With eight Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge appearances and regular training sessions in Liwa, Al Balooshi isn’t exactly stepping into unknown territory – it’s one of his favourite rallies on the FIM calendar.
“If you don’t like riding in the desert then the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge can be really difficult,” he said. “But then again, it’s one of the fun races because you can have the time of your life and race in one of the biggest dunes on the desert.
“I wouldn’t say it’s one of the most difficult rallies but perhaps one of the most physical, especially if you’re not used to the heat. But it doesn’t affect me because I train here every time. If you like dirt biking, then for sure this is the place to be.”
One factor that has aided Al Balooshi for the demanding season ahead is his Dakar Rally participation at the start of the year.
In the world’s most notorious cross-country race on South American soil, he tackled a gruelling terrain of more than 9,000km for two weeks before crossing the finish line in 50th position in Argentina.
And he believes his time on the wheels on a route that started in Peru, crossing into Bolivia ahead of the finish in Cordoba, has made him a better all-round competitor.
“The Dakar Rally has been a big help,” he said. “You can say it’s like doing three cross-countries back-to-back. To do that over a period of 14 days in very tough conditions with just one day off, is difficult because you get to cover a lot of distance.
“I feel like I have matured in this Dakar Rally. I’m always in shape but what has been missing is the lack of navigation training because we don’t have it here. I prepare the navigation for myself but it’s not the same when you travel to other countries. But for sure, the Dakar Rally was a real help to me and by finishing it has given me a lot of self-confidence that I can achieve good results in the future.”
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: