Al-Attiyah and Sunderland extended their leads in the car and motorcycle categories by claiming victories through the opening 276.59km selective section of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge Powered by Nissan on Sunday.
The stage started east of Arjan, south of Abu Dhabi, and finished north of the remote desert resort of Qasr al Sarab.
Dakar Rally winner Sunderland started last on the road but claimed the win by just three seconds and holds an overnight advantage of just 5.7 seconds over the Chilean defending FIM Cross-Country Rallies World Champion Pablo Quintanilla, riding his Husqvarna.
Sunderland said: “It was good to win the stage on Saturday and have the choice of position, because this race is quite strategic. It was a heavy day, really tough, and we had to push a lot. To start last and finish first was not easy. The deserts are really unpredictable out there.
“With the rain of the past weeks, I lost the front (of the bike) in the sand, in the soft dunes, braking a few times. This caused a bit of stress. But the bike is working good. I will take each day as it comes. Obviously starting first on Monday, I will lose time. But we will see.”
“It was a really difficult stage,” said Quintanilla. “I came from behind with Sam. I rode really fast and I was leading for a time. But it was a good stage. It was important to come back strongly from my crash on the Dakar and get my confidence again.”
Kuwait’s Mohammed Jaffar and Abu Dhabi’s Mohammed Al-Balooshi reached the finish in eighth and ninth overall on their respective KTMs.
Al-Attiyah cruised to the stage win in the cars and his Overdrive Racing Toyota Hilux now leads the event by 11in 35.1sec from Abu Dhabi Racing’s Sheikh Khalid Al-Qassimi.
Al-Attiyah said: “It was not easy, but we had a good start position – sixth. We push very hard in the first 70km and pass everybody just to make the gap big. We don’t have any problems. Everything is working very well. Our Toyota is good. It was very hot. Inside the cabin it was 52 (Centigrade). We try and drink water and some energy liquid. Now we see for the next day.”
Russian Vladimir Vasilyev finished third in his X-raid Mini All4 Racing, Czech Miroslav Zapletal was fourth and fellow countryman Martin Prokop produced an impressive performance in his Ford to claim the fifth fastest time. Italian Eugenio Amos was a surprise sixth in the unofficial standings.
Kuwaiti Fahad Al-Musallam’s advantage in the quad section was short-lived and the Kuwaiti slipped out of the top five in the quad category behind Poland’s stage winning Kamil Wisniewski and Guatemala’s Rodolfo Schippers. Italy’s Camelia Liparoti produced a good performance to finish third.
“The first stage has never been easy as today has proved. But it’s a way for the competitors to acclimatise to the heat and the conditions before they enter much longer sections of dunes over the coming days,” said event founder and ATCUAE President Mohammed Ben Sulayem.
Saudi Arabia’s Yasir Saeidan has unfinished business in the T2 category after missing out on last year’s title and he made a strong start to his Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge campaign and was the front-running T2 driver at the early passage control checks.
Local driver Mansoor Al-Helai’s plan to push hard in the T2 category suffered a severe setback when he ground to a halt before PC1. Meanwhile, Marat Abykayev’s challenge for T2 honours suffered a terminal blow when the Kazakh crashed his Toyota Land Cruiser heavily early in the stage and co-driver Andrey Chipenko sustained an injury.
The medical helicopter was summoned and his co-driver was airlifted to Madinat Zayed hospital with a head injury. He was conscious and in a stable condition.
Dubai-based Saluki Motorsport is running three different makes of car for founder Mark Powell (Buggy), UAE-based Georgy Gomshiashvili (Predator X185) and rookie Omani Abdullah Al-Zubair (Nissan Patrol).
Experienced Welshman Quin Evans, Russian Nikita Abramov and former Dakar enduro rider Annie Seel, from Sweden, have been tasked with navigating duties. The trio began the day in 33rd, 30th and 25th overall.
On Monday, competitors enter the feared dunes of the Rub Al-Khali for the first time. The stage starts on the road from Mezaira’a to Madinat Zayed and heads west towards two passage controls off the Ghayathi Road, before reaching PC3, near Arada, and heading to a finish near Moreeb Hill.
The stage runs for 289.39km and a liaison of 99.69km guides entrants back to the bivouac.
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