Al-Attiyah and Casale stay clear as Sunderland and Quintanilla set up bike showdown

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Qatar’s Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah, Chile’s Ignacio Casale and a tied Sam Sunderland and Pablo Quintanilla lead their respective car, quad and motorcycle categories after the third and longest selective section of the Sealine Cross-Country Rally on Wednesday.

Al-Attiyah and Quintanilla recorded stage wins in very different circumstances. Overnight motorcycle leader Toby Price retired with a back injury before the restart and that enabled Sunderland and Quintanilla to utilise their favourable starting positions to catch their rivals and edge into a shared lead, with both riders tied to the second. Quintanilla claimed the stage win by 1min 58sec, although the nature of cross-country motorcycle racing dictates that he may give some or all of that back to his KTM rival on Thursday.

Al-Attiyah and French navigator Matthieu Baumel led from the front of the car field and progressed in a sensible manner to win the special by 40 seconds and propel their Toyota Hilux Overdrive to an outright lead of 8min 36sec over Saudi Arabia’s Yazeed Al-Rajhi. The two rivals remain in a class of their own after three days of competition and were separated by seconds throughout the entire stage, a minor navigational error near the end costing the Saudi a potential stage win. Third-placed Vladimir Vasilyev is now 53min 29sec adrift of the Qatari in his Mini All4 Racing.

“I lost the way a little, but we had a good run without any problems,” said Al-Attiyah. “I am quite happy. This is our plan. We do same speed and we keep everyone behind. Just one slow puncture for the last 100km, but we kept on going.”

Al-Rajhi said: “We do it well until the end. Then, at a junction, we went more left and no right and that’s where he lost the time, maybe more than one minute. A lot of cap. If you follow sometimes it is not a good idea. A lot of times the cap is not there. I think we can still drive hard tomorrow. We were leading at the PC before the finish.”

Motorcycle stage winner Quintanilla said: “Today was really difficult for me. I damaged the rear wheel on a big jump near the start and drove like that until the refuel. I did not think I could make it. Then, at the refuelling, I stop and the team changed the wheel. I was lucky to finish the race. I am happy. It was good stage. We have two more days to go. For sure, it is going to be really tough.”

“In the end it seemed to be quite predictable. I arrived with Pablo together,” said Sunderland. “We are fighting for seconds. It’s becoming tricky with the other riders coming in between us. I’m just happy to stay safe. I had six months off with my broken femur. I don’t want to take too many risks, especially now that Toby has stopped, Laia is out and another rider had a crash this morning at a dangerous place. Pablo damaged his rear wheel there. It was marked as danger three in the road book at the top of the crest, but the track dropped away by three metres.”

Ignacio Casale maintained a comfortable lead over Rafal Sonik in the quad category, although the Pole stopped at the scene of a crash involving fellow Sonik Team rider Julian Villarrubia near the stage start. That time should be returned to the recent Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge winner at the evening’s FIM Jury meeting at Losail.

Behind Vasilyev, Mini colleague Ricardo Porém holds fourth overall, Kazakh Yuriy Sazonov is fifth and the experienced former Dakar winner Jutta Kleinschmidt is driving well in sixth.

Local driver Adel Hussein Abdullah began the stage with a solid advantage over Saudi’s Yasir Seaidan in the T2 category for Series Production Cross-Country Vehicles in his Nissan Middle East-supported Patrol. He ceded 4min 40sec of that hard-earned lead on the day’s stage and heads into the final two specials with an advantage of 4min 06sec

Carlo Cinotto pipped Michele Cinotto to the T3 stage win in his Polaris RZR 1000s and holds the class lead at the end of the day.

It was a fraught day for the three female QMMF-supported rookies in their T1 Nissan Patrols. Kiwi Emma Gilmour had passed PC4 at 3pm in 18th overall on Wednesday afternoon. French girl Charlotte Berton and Spaniard Cristina Gutierrez were progressing well after massive early delays and were 21st and 25th overall through PC3.

Day 3 – as it happened

José Cornejo was still permitted to open the road after his stage victory on Tuesday, despite picking up a 15-minute time penalty that was added to his leg time for an engine change on Tuesday. Twelve motorcycles, two quads and 31 FIA cars were granted start times, with the likes of Raul Orlandini rejoining the fray after breaking a wheel stud and losing a wheel on Tuesday’s stage that cost him his chance to challenge for T2 honours.

Price should have headed into the special fourth and the road and 38 seconds ahead of Salvatierra in the motorcycle category. But the Australian complained of severe back pain at the end of the stage on Tuesday evening and did not restart. Al-Attiyah’s lead over Al-Rajhi was 7min 56sec in the cars and Casale headed Sonik by 14min 19sec in the quad duel.

Ahead lay the longest special of the rally, a punishing 355.49km selective that headed south towards the Inland Sea and the border with Saudi Arabia and then turned west and back up the coastline to wind its way back to a finish between Umm Qarn and Abu Nakhla. There were four passage controls after 118.34km, 163.08km, 204.44km and 294.53km.

Spanish rider Julian Villarrubia crashed shortly after the start and Sonik Team colleague Rafal Sonik stopped to offer support until medical attention arrived. Villarrubia sustained a broken arm. Sonik continued into the stage, the accident reducing the number of motorcyclists still running to 11. Sunderland wasted no time in passing Pierre Alexander Renet and began to chase down the leading duo, as Mohammed Al-Balooshi and Scott Britnell struggled in the dunes.

Sunderland reached PC1 over a minute faster than Quintanilla and that enabled the KTM rider to snatch the virtual rally lead. He maintained that position through PC2 as well and the duo found themselves well clear of Salvatierra in the virtual overall rankings. It was developing into a duel to the finish between a KTM and a Husqvarna. Qatar’s Ahmed Fahad Al-Kuwari fell before the opening passage control and sustained a collar bone injury.

Al-Attiyah was 34 seconds quicker than Al-Rajhi to PC1. Orlandini and Mohammed Al-Mannai lost valuable time early in the stage, although both managed to get going again swiftly. Mohammed Al-Harqan, Pietro Cinotto, Ahmed Al-Gashami and Marco Piana also hit trouble before PC1, as the Qatar desert began to bite back.

There was no respite and Mohammed Al-Meer’s Chevrolet and Ahmad Al-Fares’s Canam Maverick - running in the National Rally – launched over a dune and the impact resulted in minor injuries and the need for medical attention for three of the team members.

Khalid Al-Feraihi stopped short of the first passage control with tyre issues, while problems affected Hamed Al-Thani, all three of the girls driving the QMMF-backed Nissans in the FIA Women in Motorsport prize drive, Marco Piana and Jamal Fakhroo and Khalid Al-Mohannadi. Several of them lost considerable time.

Quintanilla managed to catch Sunderland and the leading group rode together through the last PC, with the Chilean taking a virtual stage lead that he maintained to the finish at Mukaynis. He and Sunderland crossed the line virtually together and are now tied to the second for the rally lead, with Quintanilla having the slight advantage of running behind his rival on Friday if all things remain equal. It sets up the thrilling prospect of a sprint to the finish line in two days’ time. Pierre Alexander Renet lost time and slipped to fifth in the overall rankings. Al-Attiyah was behind Al-Rajhi at PC4, but hit back to win the special by 40 seconds and extend his lead. The rest of the field trailed in their wake, navigation, dunes and mechanical issues costing numerous crews a lot of time. Qatar’s Mohammed Al-Mannai had engine belt issues and could not repair the damage. He hopes to start on Thursday.

Tomorrow (Thursday), is the penultimate day of this year’s event and competitors will face the rigours of a 354.75km selective section that starts at Al-Shabana (first bike @ 07.15hrs) and finishes close to the former bivouac at Sealine. The stage initially heads north towards Al-Jamilaiya, using some of the terrain from the first day, and then cuts back across the heart of Qatar between Dukhan and Doha. The closing kilometres then venture through the dunes on the eastern side of the country to finish close to the former bivouac at Sealine.