Al-Qassimi, Sunderland and Al-Musallam claim victories after punishing Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge

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Abu Dhabi Racing’s Sheikh Khalid Al-Qassimi, Dubai-based Briton Sam Sunderland and Kuwait’s Fahad Al-Musallam secured overall victories after the final dramatic Abu Dhabi Aviation-sponsored stage of 219.76km at the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge POWERED BY NISSAN on Thursday.

Qatar’s Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah appeared to be cruising to victory in the cars until he rolled his Overdrive Racing Toyota Hilux heavily before the opening passage control. Despite continuing for a short while after a long delay, he retired the damaged car at PC1.

Al-Qassimi and navigator Khalid Al-Kendi had put their previous day’s troubles behind them and were pushing hard to the finish and keeping the pressure on their rivals. Their determination was duly rewarded with a superb victory that gives the Abu Dhabi driver a 33-point lead in the FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies after three rounds.

A fascinating tussle ensued for supremacy in the motorcycle and quad categories. Honda’s Paulo Gonçalves began the last stage with a lead of 33.8 seconds, but starting order is crucial in this form of cross-country rallying and Dakar champion Sam Sunderland delivered a stunning ride on his Red Bull KTM 450 Rally to seal the stage win and earn his first Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge victory.

Starting eighth on the road was an obvious advantage and the Dubai-based rider’s strategy paid off handsomely. Chile’s Pablo Quintanilla bounced back from recent career setbacks to claim second place on his Rockstar Energy Husqvarna – 6min 13.7sec behind the winner - and Austrian Matthias Walkner won the battle with Paulo Gonçalves for third place.

“It feels cool, it’s been a long time coming,” said Sunderland. “This is my home race. I made a good start and it’s been the perfect race for me. It started well but it’s been really hard. I knew that I had to push hard this morning to make up the time quickly and that the first section was important. The team has been great, the bike’s been fantastic and it’s a great way to follow up the win in Dakar.”

Ride to Abu Dhabi’s Mohammed Al-Balooshi was the leading Arab finisher in seventh position. “Very happy to finish this rally. It was tough. All the respect to the guys who finish ahead of me. They are super athletes. It is their job. Not being on this bike for a year. I did not expect more than this. My progress was stopped. I could not have done this without my team at Ride to Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi Sports Council and all my sponsors. Without them, this sport is difficult. They play a key role.”

A delighted Al-Qassimi will take many positives from his debut in the Abu Dhabi Racing Peugeot 3008 DKR. Delays on day four aside, Al-Qassimi has adapted well to cross-country rallying in a short space of time and his victory throws the FIA World Cup wide open. His winning margin was 41min 26sec and he became the first Emirati to win the event since Mohammed Mattar won the two non-championship races way back in 1991 and 1992.

Al-Qassimi said: “I think this is the first win on an FIA World Cup round for an Emirati in 27 years. This event has been in the series for 25 years and this is also a first for an Emirati. I don’t want to be so greedy. I am still learning and for me every day is a learning curve. This is only my fourth or fifth cross-country. I am pushing myself to a good level. The team itself, all of us, had a good effort. We had a lot of problems. We took stock after the drive shaft. That was a bad time. That’s why they call it cross-country. You keep pushing. It is good for myself and for Abu Dhabi. It’s an Abu Dhabi event. It is fantastic for everyone that we won this rally. It’s a big boost winning this rally. We are happy. I am not doing the Cross-Country championship. The reality is that we are leading now. Do we do another event?”

Czech driver Martin Prokop delivered a career-best performance in this discipline of rallying to snatch second place in his Ford F-150. Mohammed Abu Issa has enjoyed a successful transition from racing on a quad to being competitive in a car and the Qatari finished third overall in his Mini All4 Racing.

Khalid Al-Feraihi, Yayha Al-Helai and Mark Powell delivered excellent performances to finish fourth, fifth and sixth overall. “It was a great team effort by everyone at Saluki Motorsport,” said Powell. “The car was tested at the Dubai International Baja and hours of hard work have paid off.”

T2 became a battleground between Ahmed Al-Shegawi and Yasir Saiedan after earlier delays for Abu Dhabi’s Emil Khneisser and Qatar’s Adel Abdulla. Al-Shegawi was delayed on the last stage and Saiedan claimed the win and seventh overall from Al-Shegawi, Mansoor Al-Helai and Adel Abdulla.

Dutchman Kees Koolen won the day’s stage in the quads but, when Guatamala’s Rodolfo Schippers – who began the day with a lead of 1min 43.3sec – stopped with mechanical issues it opened the door for Kuwait’s Fahad Al-Musallam to claim a memorable win on his Yamaha Raptor 700 R. Former leader Kamil Wisniewski of Poland finished third.

Al-Musallam said: “I cannot quite believe it honestly. It feels like a dream. I guess I will wake up and realise this achievement. I was trying to chase Rodolfo (Schippers). The goal was to finish each stage and then to push. I caught some time early on and then we have the win. It’s a great feeling.”

“Once again we enjoyed a gripping Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge,” said event founder and ATCUAE President Mohammed Ben Sulayem. “My thanks to go out to all our government departments, to our sponsors and to the competitors, officials, media and volunteers who make the event such a success.”

The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge took 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.

Thursday – as it happened

The final stage was only 219.76km in length and similar to stage one in reverse. Kevin Benavides was first on the road on his Honda but attention focused on the battle between Renet, Gonçalves, Walkner, Quintanilla and Sunderland for the stage win and the overall victory.

Sunderland delivered a master class performance through the crucial opening kilometres and, even though Quintanilla overtook Mohammed Jaffar early on, Sunderland passed both Jaffar and Al-Balooshi and was 3min 17sec fastest than the Chilean at PC1, after 88.52km. The victory was now the Englishman’s to lose over the closing kilometres of the bike race.

Al-Musallam began to chisel away at Schippers’s overnight lead in the quads and shaved 36 seconds off that advantage at PC1. He held on to claim the win when his rival stopped.

Al-Attiyah just needed to avoid taking any risks to win the car category for the third time and give Toyota a second win. But the Qatari got caught out on a fast section of track before the first passage control and launched the Toyota into a heavy roll. The crew frantically tried to make repairs and began to crawl through the stage to the first checkpoint, but it was to no avail and it opened the door for Al-Qassimi to snatch a sensational victory.

It also meant that Al-Qassimi leapt to the top of the unofficial championship standings before the next round of the FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies in Qatar.

Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge