Cyril Despres and Sam Sunderland emerged as the early pacesetters in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge Powered by Nissan today as a heavy sandstorm turned the opening leg into a battle for survival.
High winds churning up a wall of sand made visibility a constant problem as the 262km Yas Marina Circuit Stage wound its way through the dunes towards it conclusion at the bivouac, the rally’s desert base for the next four days on the fringe of the Rub Al Khali.
Partnered by Spain’s Daniel Oliveras in a Mini John Cooper Works Buggy, Frenchman Despres, five time a Desert Challenge bikes winner, made a positive start in pursuit of his first cars triumph at his second attempt on four wheels.
He completed the stage holding a 5 mins 45 secs advantage over Dutchman Bernhard Ten Brinke and Belgian co-driver Tom Colsoul in a Toyota Hilux Overdrive.
Chasing a sixth cars victory, eight years after his last and this time with wife and former rally star Andrea as co-driver, Stephane Peterhansel was just 1 min 58 secs further away in third in a Mini John Cooper Works Rally.
Czech defending champion Martin Prokop and Viktor Chytka held fourth in a Ford Raptor RS from Dubai Baja winners Jakub Przygonski and Timo Gottschalk in another Mini. The UAE’s Khalid Al Qassimi and Xavier Panseri completed the top six in an Abu Dhabi Racing Peugeot 3008 DKR.
While conditions were thoroughly demanding for the 34 drivers who started the second round of the FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies, they were particularly tough on the 33 bike and quads riders contesting the opening round of the FIM Cross Country Rallies World Championship.
Sunderland, the 2017 Desert Challenge and Dakar Rally winner, produced a hugely impressive performance to lead by 6 mins 9 secs from Andrew Short, the Texan quickly making an impact in cross country rallying after a rock star career in American Supercross and Motocross.
Chile’s Jose Cornejo was 37 seconds away in third with another young rising star, Argentinian Argentinean Luciano Benavides, 2 mins 21 secs further behind, just ahead of elder brother Kevin.
UAE-based Mark Ackerman completed the top six while top Emirati rider Mohammed Al Balooshi had a rough day, finishing more than 42 minutes off the pace in eighth position.
“It was a day when we saw just how tough and demanding the Desert Challenge can be” said Mohammed Ben Sulayem, President of the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE and FIA Vice President for Sport.
Taking place under the patronage of H.H. Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Ruler's Representative in Al Dafrah Region, the event is supported Abu Dhabi Aviation, Abu Dhabi Police, ADNOC, Al Ain Water, Al Dhafra Region Ruler’s Representative Court, National Ambulance, Nissan, United Arab Emirates Armed Forces and Yas Marina Circuit.
Reaching the end of the stage, Despres said: “It has been a long time since I started a stage with a storm and strong winds as we had here today. I could not see the crest of the dunes easily. It was challenging. This was our first mission with new co-driver Daniel and we are getting to know each other. Also, I am not used to the desert you have here in Abu Dhabi, I need to get back and learn how to read the tracks much better.”
Ten Brinke said: “It was a good day today. We started fourth so there were some good tracks to follow. We burst a tyre after jumping a dune and lost 3 or 4 minutes finding a safe spot to change it.”
Stephane Peterhansel, whose initial Desert Challenge success came as a rider back in 1996, had been unsure until 24 hours before the start whether wife Andrea would be alongside him in view of her problems with car sickness. Reaching the end of the stage he said: “It was a good day. The car suffered no problems. The husband and wife team are doing well, and there were no sickness problems.”
Sunderland completed the stage to say: “I found the first leg difficult, battling low visibility in the sandstorm right from the start till the end. I tried to get a good rhythm throughout and avoid mistakes where possible.”
Short said: “I was really fortunate to ride behind Sam today as he knows the terrain very well. It's my first time in the Desert Challenge and I felt lucky with the weather. I was with a good group of riders and the wind cleared our tracks which would have made it more difficult for those behind us.”
Cornejo declared: “Today was really tough and with the wind it made it more difficult to anticipate the dunes. With this being my first time the cloudiness was an extra challenge and I had issues finding my rhythm but I’m still looking forward to the next four days.”
Reflecting on a challenging opening leg, Balooshi said: “I started second but Sam managed to catch me then (Kevin) Benavides and I got stuck a couple of times. It wasn't meant to be for me. I thought the Desert Challenge would have been an easier experience after the Dakar rally but it was extremely tough. But I did enjoy myself out there, it was a great challenge.”
Leading positions after Yas Marina Circuit Stage 1 (provisional):
1. Cyril Despres / Daniel Oliveras (FRA / ESP) / Mini John Cooper Works Buggy 3:39:15.0
2. Bernhard Ten Brinke / Tom Colsoul (NDL / BEL) / Toyota Hilux Overdrive 3:45:00.0
3. Stephane Peterhansel / Andrea Peterhansel (FRA / DEU) / MINI JCWorks Rally 3:46:58.0
4. Martin Prokop / Viktor Chytka (CZE / CZE) / Ford Raptor RS Cross Country 3:50:01.0
5. Jakub Przygonski / Timo Gottschalk (POL / DEU) / MINI John Cooper Works Buggy 3:54:02.0
6. Khalid Al Qassimi / Xavier Panseri (ARE / FRA) / Peugeot 3008 DKR 3:54:24.0
7. Aron Domzala / Maciej Marton (POL / POL) / Toyota Hilux Overdrive 3:57:10.0
8. Casey Currie / Laurent Lichtleuchter (USA / FRA) / CAN AM Maverick X3 4:04:35.0
9. Reinaldo Varela / Gustavo Gugelmin (BRA / BRA) / CAN AM Maverick X3 4:05:43.0
10. Vladimir Vasilyev / Konstantin Zhiltsov (RUS / RUS) / BMW X3 4:08:08.0
1. Sam Sunderland (GBR) / KTM 450 Rally Factory / 1 3:40:41.0
2. Andrew Short (USA) / HUSQVARNA FR 450 / 1 3:46:50.0
3. Jose Cornejo (CHL) / Honda CRF 450 Rally / 1 3:47:27.0
4. Luciano Benavides (ARG) / KTM 450 Rally Factory / 1 3:49:48.0
5. Kevin Benavides (ARG) / Honda CRF 450 Rally / 1 3:55:08.0
6. Mark Ackerman (ZAF) / HUSQVARNA F 450 RR / 1 4:21:12.0
7. Ryan Blair (GBR) / HUSQVARNA F 450 RR / 1 4:21:30.0
8. Mohammed Al Balooshi (ARE) / KTM 450 Rally Replica / 1 4:23:30.0
9. David McBride (GBR) / KTM 450 Rally / 1 4:41:47.0
10. Mohammed Meshari Jaffar (KWT) / KTM 450 Rally Replica / 1 4:44:56.0
Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge powered by Nissan, remaining rally itinerary:
1 April: Al Ain Water Stage 2 (222.80km) - starting 6.00am
2 April: Nissan Stage 3 (297.97km) - starting 6.15am
3 April: ADNOC Stage 4 (286.10km) - starting 6.00am
4 April: Abu Dhabi Aviation Stage 5 (214.47km) - starting 6.25am
Source: ADDC press release