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. »
Vladimir 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.