Al-Attiyah extends Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge lead as Sunderland wins stage to regain bike advantage


Qatar’s Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah stormed to a fourth successive stage victory in the car category at the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge POWERED BY NISSAN, as Dubai-based Sam Sunderland won the motorcycle special to regain the advantage on two wheels on Tuesday.

Starting sixth on the road for the 288.73km passage along gatch tracks and through the towering dunes of the UAE, Sunderland delivered another stunning performance on his factory Red Bull KTM 450 Rally and now holds an advantage of 3min 06.7sec over Chilean rider Pablo Quintanilla.

Frenchman Pierre Alexandre Renet knew it would never be easy to open the road with such top class competition and the Husqvarna rider finished the Al-Ain Water-backed stage in fifth and holds a similar position in the rankings behind the leading duo, KTM’s Matthias Walkner and Honda’s Paolo Goncalves. Emirati Mohammed Al-Balooshi climbed to seventh position.

Sunderland said: “It was a good day. I started back in sixth and I caught all the guys before the refuel, which I was really happy about. At the start I couldn’t see everyone after the start and I started to feel a little nervous so see whether I was catching them or not. You don’t know. I got to the refuel and I saw them just before me. After that it was good and I kind of cruised back. It was a bit windy out there. It all looks the same. There are thousands of dunes. You recognise landmarks from before and bits and pieces, but it gives you no advantage because every dune is different. I feel happy. I felt fast this morning.”

Al-Attiyah and French co-driver Matthieu Baumel stormed to the car stage win in cooler and windier conditions in their Overdrive Racing Toyota Hilux. The Qatari now heads Abu Dhabi Racing’s Sheikh Khalid Al-Qassimi by 39min 38sec with two days remaining.

“Today, the same,” said Al-Attiyah. “The car is working very well - a perfect stage for us. There is no advantage to coming here before. This is the desert. It is always changing. Saying that, it was much cooler today in the car. We do not have air conditioning. We saw 51 degrees yesterday. Today was better and it also gives more performance from the engine. Two days to go, but we will drive at the same pace. It’s a good pace.”

Al-Qassimi was upbeat after his first four days in the new Peugeot 3008 DKR. “It was not easy terrain and the organisers told me to go a certain way and we got stuck over there. We did not lose much time and deflated the tyres. It was very difficult to drive in that area. We lost some time until we found the route. After passing the bivouac we made a mistake when we took a different line and we drove inside the fence. We made another mistake about 50km from the end. It was windy and we went off the piste that you could see. You could not see the track and we tried to find a better way. We are still second overall today and for the rally. The most important thing for me is to gain the experience and the mileage and to benefit more and more.”

Czech driver Martin Prokop is on course for a career-best cross-country rally finish. The former WRC star clocked the fourth fastest time and holds third place. Emiratis Khalid Al-Jafla and Ahmed Al-Maqoodi produced stunning performances to claim the third and fifth fastest times in their respective Chevrolet and Polaris RZR 1000, but Qatar’s Mohammed Abu Issa got stuck, lost a jack and dropped to fourth. Yayha Al-Helai and Mark Powell were running well in an unofficial seventh and eighth positions.

Russian Vladimir Vasilyev lost his chance of maintaining a top five placing when he withdrew from the race at the end of the second stage with a back injury. The Mini All4 Racing driver decided to return to Russia, although his car developed engine issues the day before as well.

Poland’s Rafal Sonik stormed to the top of the quad rankings, despite ceding the stage win to Dutchman Kees Koolen. The multiple world champion leads the section by 2min 08.6sec on his Honda TRX 700 from fellow countryman Kamil Wisniewski. Kuwait’s Fahad Al-Musallam is third. “We have had some problems and delays on the rally and it was nice to have a good stage and a clean run,” said Sonik.

“It’s been another dramatic day on the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge,” said event founder and ATCUAE President Mohammed Ben Sulayem. “This race is one of the toughest in the world for good reason and we see many competitors with various issues to contend with. The temperatures are set to come down by several degrees over the next two days after the very hot spell we endured and that should be a respite for everyone.”

The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge is taking place under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the Ruler’s representative in Al-Dafra region, and has invaluable support from Al Dafrah Region Municipality, Abu Dhabi Municipality, the UAE Army, Abu Dhabi Police, National Ambulance Service, Yas Marina Circuit, ADNOC, Abu Dhabi Aviation, Al-Ain Water, Abu Dhabi Waste Management, Rotana and Centro Hotel – Yas Island, the Qasr Al-Sarab Resort and Al-Forsan Circuit.

Tuesday – as it happened

Walkner was awarded a one-minute time penalty in the bivouac on Monday evening for speeding in a control zone at PC3 yesterday and that meant he lost the overall lead to Gonçalves at the start of day three. Mohammed Jaffar also dropped from eighth to ninth overall after being docked 44 minutes for excessive speeding.

FIA World Cup leader Aron Domzala had pulled out of the previous day’s leg after suffering a severe bout of dune sickness in the punishing heat, but he continued into the hardest day of the event. The T2 battle was hotting up. Saudi Arabia’s Ahmed Al-Shegawi had won the previous day’s special, but Yasir Saeidan led overall after ongoing clutch plate issues for Emil Khneisser dropped the Nissan driver out of contention.

Al-Attiyah led the car entourage into the desert for the third day, but injury meant that Vladimir Vasilyev was forced to miss the rest of his event in his Mini All4 Racing. Germany’s Stephan Schott lost sixth place at the Moreeb dune when he tipped his Mini All4 Racing on to its roof. Neither Schott nor co-driver Andreas Schulz were injured and the sweep car was on the scene quickly. Numerous competitors suffered issues at Moreeb and Ian Barker called it a day after wife Sheila suffered a bout of motion sickness.

Sunderland benefited from his starting position to take command of the motorcycle stage. He passed the opening passage control behind his rivals on the track but well ahead on stage times. The Briton went on to win the special by 6mi 01sec from Quintanilla and leads the Chilean by 3min 06.7sec. Kevin Benavides suffered mechanical issues after the second passage control and fell out of contention.

Al-Attiyah romped to another stage win in the cars and increased his lead over Al-Qassimi to just under 40 minutes. Georgy Gomshiashvili was not so fortunate and rolled his Predator X18S in the dunes.

Tomorrow (Wednesday), is the penultimate stage of the event and the last of the loops through the Rub Al-Khali. The 250.25km special features three passage controls and starts to the west of the road between Mezaira’a and Madinat Zayed, before heading south-west and turning east to a refuelling point and PC at Al-Birer. The remainder of the special skirts the Saudi frontier and the dunescapes south of Moreeb before finishing 4.25km west of Hameem.

Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge