Prokop, Quintanilla move closer to victory in Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge
The prospect of two new champions being installed in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge powered by Nissan moved a step closer after Czech driver Martin Prokop and Chilean rider Pablo Quintanilla emerged unscathed from a difficult test today.
After winning the rally’s demanding penultimate leg, Prokop and co-driver David Pabiska in a Ford F-150 Evo hold an overall lead of 15 mins 20secs from Poland’s Jakub Przygonski with Belgian Tom Colsoul in a Mini John Cooper.
Dubai-based defending champion Sam Sunderland had started the day holding a 7 mins 34 secs bikes lead, but after crashing his KTM early on the penultimate leg finished it 6 mins 17 secs adrift of new leader Quintanilla who won the stage on a Husqvarna to climb from fourth overnight.
While Prokop almost doubled his overnight cars lead, Russia’s two-times Desert Challenge winners Vladimir Vasilyev and Konstantin Zhiltsov climbed to third in a Mini Cooper Countryman at the expense of the UAE’s defending champion, Khalid Al Qassimi.
Partnered by French co-driver Xavier Panseri in his Peugeot Abu Dhabi Racing Team 3008 DKR, Al Qassimi slipped to fourth place, just over 53 minutes off the lead, with a final stage of 218-kms taking the surviving competitors towards the finish at Yas Marina Circuit tomorrow afternoon.
Five-times former bikes winner Cyril Despres of France with Swiss Steve Ravussin in a Buggy Ford and German Stephan Schott with Portugal’s Paulo Fiuza in a Mini John Cooper completed the top six.
There was bitter disappointment, however, for the UAE’s Yahya Al Helei and Khalid Al Kendi who were sixth overnight in a Nissan Pick Up but retired with mechanical problems.
“We’ve had four days of classic cross country rallying across some of the most dramatic and challenging desert terrain on earth,” said Mohammed Ben Sulayem, President of the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE and Emirates Motorsport Federation.
“With just the final stage left no-one can afford to relax and risk making any mistakes. We’ve seen the lead changing hands on the last day so many times in the past.”
In the bikes battle, despite managing only the 7th and 8th fastest times on the day just ahead of Sunderland, Argentinian rider Kevin Benavides on a Honda and Austria’s reigning Dakar Rally champion Matthias Walkner on a KTM hold third and fourth places overall.
Portugal’s 2014 Desert Challenge winner Paulo Goncalves and American Ricky Brabec, both riding Hondas, complete the top six while veteran UAE-based Dave McBride, a previous runner-up in the event, maintained his top ten position.
In the buggies category, Spain’s Jose-Luis Pena Campo and Rafel Tornabell in a Polaris go into the final leg holding a lead of 20 mins 44 secs from UAE-based Michel Fadel and Craig Tyson,
Saudi Arabia’s Ahmed Al Shegawi with French co-driver Laurent Lichtleuchter in a Toyota Landcruiser are within reach of the T2 production cars title, leading by more than 57 minutes from Qatar’s Adel Abdulla and Naser Al Kuwari in a Nissan Patrol. The final stage could see an interesting battle to decide the quads title, with Dutch entrepreneur and investor Kees Koolen on his Barren Racer leading by just over 4 mins from Russian Aleksandr Maksimov on a Yahama.
Prokop finished the stage to say: “It was an ok day, but tough. We made many mistakes going up the dunes, meaning I had to go around and try again. The feeling in the car was not good. It took a long time to get the right rhythm. It was tough today.”
Vasilyev, who scored back-to-back Desert Challenge victories in 2014 and 2015, said: “That was a good stage, but we had a slow puncture for the last 30km which made the car very bouncy.”
It had not been a comfortable leg either for Quintanilla who completed the stage to say: “I had a really tough day. But I’m happy to finish the stage and go on to race tomorrow.”
Sunderland, who made a great surge on the final leg last year to clinch his first Desert Challenge crown, must now do the same again to keep his title. He said at the finish: “A bad, bad day with a big crash early on my camelbak (water bottle) split so I had no fluid.”
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.