Scene set for dramatic motorcycle finale in Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge
Qatar’s Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah extended his advantage in the car category to 1hr 46min 03sec after the fourth 250.25km selective section of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge POWERED BY NISSAN on Wednesday.
But the scene is set for a dramatic showdown in the motorcycle category over the closing stage on Thursday. Victory on stage four fell to the Monster Energy Honda team rider Kevin Benavides, but the Argentinean lost his chance of taking the win with clutch issues on day three and a fascinating five-way battle is in prospect over the closing kilometres between overnight leader Paulo Gonçalves, Austrian Matthias Walkner, Pierre Alexandre Renet, Sam Sunderland and Pablo Quintanilla.
Gonçalves holds an advantage of 33.8 seconds over the Austrian, but both Sunderland and Quintanilla have favourable starting positions for the final day.
Sunderland said: “I don’t really like to race like this. The strategy and trying to see what the others guys are doing. I’d rather it just be the fastest rider won. I’ve lost this race so many years by being the fastest dude. This year I have been trying to get the strategy better. We will see how we go. I will have to ride as hard as I can to catch the time back. It may look easy on the paper but it’s far from it. You have to fight a lot and work hard.”
Leader Gonçalves was in determined mood: “Today I do what I can. I catch the guys in front of me, so I am the leader overall on day four. We have a day more to race. I will to do my best. I know it is not going to be an easy start position for tomorrow. We have 220km still to go. The bike has been perfect. The stage is a little faster tomorrow than the last three days, but we also have a lot of dunes in the middle. In normal conditions the others have an advantage. We never know.”
“Very, very happy, because this victory represents all the work I did since my crash,” said stage winner Benavides. ”It’s a new start in my career. I take confidence from this. After the penalty yesterday, I could not fight for the race but this is a great bonus.”
Mohammed Al-Balooshi has not ridden this KTM in race conditions since crashing heavily in Qatar last year, but the Ride to Abu Dhabi star holds seventh place. “Today’s stage was by far the shortest and the weather helped all the riders. We don’t have navigation problems and I am happy with my performance and comfortable with the bike. It’s not an easy job. I did not ride this bike since one year ago in Sealine Rally in Qatar. One year not riding a rally bike. We have one more day and I am looking at the bigger picture even though I would love to compete with the guys. With the situation I have given myself, I am giving 100%.”
Al-Attiyah and French co-driver Matthieu Baumel Qatari are in cruise control in the cars and won the stage from local driver Khalid Al-Jafla by 22min 41sec. “It was a good day for us. We don’t face any problems. Difficult dunes. It’s not really high speed and we try to take it easy without mistakes. We now have a big lead and we try to reach the finish for tomorrow,” said Al-Attiyah.
Sheikh Khalid Al-Qassimi’s debut in the new Abu Dhabi Racing Peugeot 3008 DKR ground to a halt, when the PH Sport car sustained a broken drive shaft before PC2 and the Emirati lost considerable time and any chance of pushing for the win. He maintained second overall.
Czech driver Martin Prokop was third to maintain a podium place and fellow countryman Miroslav Zapletal was third on the day. There were also excellent stage performances by fifth-placed Mohammed Abu Issa and Ahmed Al-Maqoodi.
Abu Issa holds fourth overall and Mark Powell has quietly been chipping away at the leader board and another superb performance by the Dubai-based Brit has seen him climb to an unofficial seventh overall in his Fast & Speed Buggy behind Khaled Al-Feraihi’s Nissan Patrol and seasoned veteran and experienced desert campaigner Yayha Al-Helai.
Rafal Sonik lost his 2min 08.6sec lead in the quad category after technical issues plagued his Honda TRX 700 after the first passage control. The Pole’s delay left the door open for Peru’s Alexis Hernandez Ponce to claim the stage win and for Guatamala’s Rodolfo Schippers to take a category lead of 1min 43.3sec into the final stage. Kuwait’s Fahad Al-Musallam is second and former leader Kamil Wisniewski holds third.
“One more day to go at the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge and it has lived up to all expectation in terms of unpredictability and excitement and we are faced with a fascinating final day to decide the results,” said event founder and ATCUAE President Mohammed Ben Sulayem, who was joined for a tour of the bivouac by His Excellency Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al-Nahyan, Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development and Chairman of the General Authority for Youth and Sports Welfare
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.
The safety side of the event has been bolstered by vital support from National Ambulance Service. “We have ambulances and personnel in key parts of the route to maximise the safety of competitors, media and officials,” said Ahmed Saleh Al Hajeri, National Ambulance Deputy CEO.
Wednesday – as it happened
Sunderland led his rivals into the liaison of 128.17km to the start of the special to the west of the road to Madinat Zayed and managed to fend off his pursuers to the opening passage control. Quintanilla shaved nearly a minute off the Briton’s lead, but Renet, Walkner and Gonçalves used their start advantage to close in still further on the overnight leader and Benavides was riding strongly from the rear of the field after day three clutch woes.
Motion sickness forced FIA World Cup leader Aron Domzala to withdraw his Toyota before the start of the day and Al-Attiyah was the sole representative for Overdrive Racing at the front of the already depleted car field.
The route headed towards PC2 and bike refuelling at Al-Birer, south of the village of Arada, and then headed in an easterly direction across the dune complexes in the Liwa valleys to a third PC at Khis quarry (225.03km) and on to a finish, 18km from the bivouac, near Hameem.
Benavides stormed through from the rear of the field to claim the stage win for Honda and team-mate Gonçalves inherited the overall lead. But strategies will come into play on the final day. Al-Attiyah made no mistake in the cars to extend his advantage over Al-Qassimi.
Tomorrow (Thursday), is the final leg of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge and comprises a shorter stage of 219.76km – a virtual mirror image of the first section run in reverse. The special starts 15km north of the desert outpost of Hameem and heads in a north-easterly direction to the opening passage control at 88.52km.
From there the tracks switch back towards PC2, at 120.78km, and bike refuelling east of the Hameem road and then on to a finish on the Razeen road where the first section began on Sunday. A liaison of 107.30km guides finishers back to the Yas Marina circuit in Abu Dhabi.