Reigning FIA World Cup champion Nasser Al-Attiyah made a flying start to the Dubai International Baja powered by AW Rostamani and Nissan on Friday while new Dakar Rally bikes champion Sam Sunderland suffered an early exit on his return to action on home territory.
Partnered by French co-driver Mathieu Baumel in a Toyota Hilux, Al Attiyah powered his way into a lead of 4 mins 14 seconds on the first stage from the UAE’s Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi and Khalid Al Kendi in their Abu Dhabi Racing Peugeot 2008 DKR.
Sunderland, making a first competitive appearance since his brilliant Dakar bikes triumph in January, went out just 18kms into the AW Rostamani Arabian Automobiles Stage 1 when his KTM was halted by a broken sprocket.
With the hot favourite removed from contention, French rider Benjamin Melot powered his way into a 22 seconds lead from South African rider Mark Ackerman, with top UAE challenger Mohammed Al Balooshi 2 mins 6 seconds further away in third place.
H.H. Sheikh Mansoor bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum had flagged away the 60 cars, buggies, bikes and quads from the ceremonial start at Bab A Shams Arena on Thursday evening, in the presence of H.E. Ibrahim Abdul Malik, General Secretary of the General Authority of Youth & Sports Welfare, and Mohammed Ben Sulayem, President of Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE and Emirates Motor Sport Federation.
Al Attiyah, winner on his last competitive visit to the UAE in last year’s Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, looked in complete control as the second round of this year’s FIA World Cup series got underway.
There were early distractions for Al Qassimi, however, as his car’s hydraulic jacks suddenly lowered, setting off alarms, before the problem was resolved.
Former Desert Challenge quads champion Mohammed Abu Issa of Qatar finished the stage in third place in a Mini All4 Racing, with the UAE’s Khalid Al Jafla in an Armada Trophy Truck, Czech Republic driver Miroslav Zapletal in a Hummer and Frenchman Ronan Chabot in a Toyota Hilux completing the top six.
Fellow Emirati driver Yahya Al Helei, partnered by Qatari co-driver Nasser Al Kuwari in a Nissan Pick-up, lost around 20 minutes after stopping to change a flat tyre, finishing the stage down in 14th place as a result.
Among the early casualties was Dutchman Eric Van Loon, the 2015 Desert Challenge runner-up, whose Toyota Hilux went out with mechanical problems 28kms into the 91km first of two stages on Friday.
Sunderland, the first British rider to savour victory in the Dakar Rally, had started as the hot favourite for another bikes success. Shortly before he retired, Emirati rider Khalid Al Falasi went out when his Honda snapped its chain.
With Sunderland removed from contention, Melot grabbed the early advantage ahead of Ackerman and Al Balooshi, with Italian Alessandro Ruoso, Dubai-British rider Dave McBride, Dubai International Rally winner in December, and Kuwaiti rider Mohammed Jaffar, completing the top six.
Meanwhile, an intense battle was already building in the production cars class, with Saudi Arabia’s Yasir Seaidan leading in a Toyota Land Cruiser by 37 seconds from young Emirati Mansour Al Helei in an Abu Dhabi Racing Land Cruiser, ahead of the Nissan Patrols driven by UAE-based Emil Khneisser and reigning FIA World Cup T2 champion Adel Hussain Abdulla.