Alphand shines, Sunderland rises in tough third stage Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge
Frenchman Luc Alphand stole the show while Czech driver Martin Prokop retained his overnight cars lead in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge powered by Nissan today as Sam Sunderland made a big move towards a second successive bikes title.
After gearbox problems had ruined his victory prospects 24 hours earlier, Alphand recovered to win the 281-km Al Ain Water Stage with 3 mins 42 secs to spare alongside German co-driver Andreas Schultz in a John Cooper Works Buggy.
Partnered by David Pabiska in a Ford F-150 Evo, overnight leader Prokop was third fastest on the day to finish the leg with a reduced advantage of 8 mins 40.2 secs from Poland’s Jakub Przygonski and Belgian co-driver Tom Colsoul, second quickest on the day in a Mini John Cooper.
The UAE’s defending champion Khaled Al Qassimi suffered a major setback in his Abu Dhabi Racing Team 3008 DKR, losing 30 minutes because of a broken drive shaft. While he retained third place overall, he now lies more than 45 minutes off the lead.
Dubai-based Sunderland, meanwhile, dominated on the bikes, winning the stage by just over six minutes from KTM team-mate Matthias Walkner to take a 7 mins 34 secs overall lead from the Austrian rider who succeeded him as Dakar Rally champion just over two months ago.
Argentinian Kevin Benavides on a Honda was third fastest today to finish the leg another 2 mins 14 secs further adrift, just ahead of overnight leader Pablo Quintanilla in fourth on his Husqvarna. Honda riders Paulo Goncalves from Portugal and American Ricky Brabec completed the top six.
The rally ended abruptly for top UAE rider Mohammed Al Balooshi who had to be transferred by helicopter to hospital for a scan after crashing on the stage. The recent Dubai International Baja winner was clearly shaken, but not seriously injured.
It was a day when Alphand once again underlined how quickly and dramatically fortunes can change in the Desert Challenge, which over the years has been a beauty with the heart of a best for many of the world’s top cross country rally stars.
After a two-minute penalty had denied him the lead at the end of the first leg, he had a dreadful time on Monday’s Nissan stage, plummeting down the field because of gearbox problems which even prevented him from stopping to describe his experience for the waiting media.
From the start today, however, the 2006 champion was flying among the dunes with all the style and confidence that made him the World Cup downhill skiing champion before he switched to motor sport in 1997. Fastest to the first checkpoint, he continued to set a pace all of his own throughout the stage.
The top six overall is completed by Russia’s two-times champions Vladimir Vasilyev and Konstantin Zhiltsov in a Mini Cooper Countryman, Frenchman Cyril Despres with Swiss Steve Ravussin in a Buggy Ford 2WD and the UAE’s Yahya Al Helei and Khalid Al Kendi in a Nissan Pick Up.
In the battle of the bikes, Quintanilla clearly had a tough time opening the stage, and by the first checkpoint his 1 min 8 secs overnight lead had virtually been wiped out by Sunderland who immediately began pulling away. It was the most emphatic way to show that he has fully recovered after injuring his back in Peru while defending his Dakar Rally title in January.
“This was another day when we saw just how tough the Desert Challenge can be,” said Mohammed Ben Sulayem, President of the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE and Emirates Motorsport Federation. “You can never take anything for granted in this rally, but at the same time it can be very rewarding.”
Overall cars leader Prokop reached the end of the Al Ain Water stage to say: “It was a very nice stage today. We don’t want to say it is easy but we made no mistakes, our navigation was good, we found a good rhythm and had a lot of fun.”
Alphand commented: “It was a perfect day for us. The car was really good, especially in the dunes - we really enjoyed it. Yesterday’s gearbox problem started at just the 40k mark. It was the gear selection - we could only go downwards, so we stayed in second gear. But that is what happens with the development of a car.”
Al Qassimi completed the stage to say: “We had a broken drive shaft 30kms and we had to stop for 30mins. There were lots of big, scary dunes today.”
Al Helei, who has not missed an edition of the desert challenge since its start in 1991, said: “That was a good day - I really enjoyed it. We had a few problems with the clutch slipping. But I drove well and had a good time.”
Sunderland finished the Al Ain Water stage to say: “It was a very good day. We benefitted from the earlier start which made it easier to read the tracks. A really good stage and I’m confident I can hold my position.”
Benavides said: “That was a very good day’s racing and I feel very confident today. The dunes were much better and with the earlier start it made for an easier ride with the lower temperature.”
Price, who dropped down the field 24 hours earlier with a broken fuel pump, said: “For me I had a good day, but right near the end Balooshi fell off his bike so I stopped to make sure he was okay and to wait for the helicopter to pick him up. Rider safety is so important and I’d happily throw a race to make sure a rider is okay.”
Taking place under the patronage of H.H. Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Ruler's Representative in Al Dafrah Region, the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge is forms the third round of the 2018 FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies for cars and buggies and the opening round of this year’s FIM Cross Country Rallies World Championship for bikes and quads.
The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge Powered by Nissan is supported by Al Dafrah Region Municipality, Abu Dhabi Municipality, the UAE Army, Abu Dhabi Police, Nissan Middle East, ADNOC, Abu Dhabi Aviation, Al-Ain Water, National Ambulance Service, Tadweer, Yas Marina Circuit and the Qasr Al-Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara.