With four legs completed and one remaining, the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge is poised to conclude its 30th anniversary journey with a tense grand finale, offering starring roles to one new world champion, and another in waiting.
Fastest on the 251 km Abu Dhabi Aviation stage for a fourth win in a row, Nasser Al Attiyah and Mathieu Baumel stretched their overall advantage in a Toyota Hilux to an unexpected 23mins 48 secs over Argentina’s Lucio Alvarez and Spain’s Armand Monleon in a Toyota Hilux Overdrive.
In contrast, new FIM world champion Matthias Walkner has not won a stage so far in the rally’s 30th edition, although a fourth second best bikes time on a KTM extended his lead to 3mins 49.6 secs over Australian GasGas rider Daniel Sanders.
Another stage win on the final leg could be enough to present Al Attiyah with the last ever drivers’ crown in the FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies, before the series is upgraded to world championship rally raid status next year.
But he must avoid a repeat of his final day exit in 2017, or leave the door open for his two remaining title rivals, Alvarez, and Saudi Arabia’s fourth-placed Yazeed Al Rajhi who trails the Qatari by 1hr 17mins with Britain’s Michael Orr in another Toyota Hilux Overdrive.
Poland’s Jakub Przygonski and German co-driver Timo Gottschalk, second overnight in a Mini John Cooper Works Buggy, saw their hopes of at least a podium finish ruined by mechanical problems among the Al Dhafrah dunes, finishing the day in 12th.
But hopes of a UAE victory in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge soared as Abdulaziz Ahli swept into a massive lead in the quads category on a disastrous day for Argentina’s Manuel Andujar. Another Emirati rider, Sultan Al Balooshi, climbed to seventh place overall in the RallGP bikes.
« This has been another interesting day, the kind that has given the rally its reputation as one that rewards big performances, but can also be so very tough at times, » said Mohammed Ben Sulayem, President of the Emirates Motorsports Organization (EMSO) and FIA Vice President for Sport.
With Przygonski battling to the finish after suffering a huge time loss, Al Attiyah completed the stage to say: « We are quite happy to have a lead. Tomorrow is another day and if we can win the stage it will be good to get one point extra which will help in the championship. Every day we learn something new, which is good for me and Mathieu and for the future. »
Promoted one place to second, Alvarez declared: « The first part was tricky and we had some navigation problems. Then in the last 20km we lost some air in our rear tyres which slowed us down a bit. But not a bad stage in the end. »
Closing the day in fifth overall, American Austin Jones and Brazilian co-driver Gustavo Gugelmin in a CAN-AM Maverick lead the FIA T4 category, while Saudi Arabia’s Saleh Alsaif with Russian co-driver Egor Okhotikov control T3 in another CAN-AM Maverick. The Czech Republic’s Martin Prokop and Viktor Chytka in a Ford Raptor RS Cross Country, meanwhile, are in total control of the class for 2022 specification cars.
After another stirring bikes battle, Walkner finished the Abu Dhabi Aviation stage to say: « I caught Daniel (Sanders) at around 100km so we rode together and pushed. I hope I am not fastest (he needn’t have worried) because I do not want to open the track tomorrow. My strategy is to do my best. »
Frenchman Adrien Van Beveren beat the Austrian by 54 secs to win the stage, leaving him 4 mins 45.8secs off the lead. If anyone is brave enough to take the risks needed to wipe out such a gap on the final day, it has to be the Yamaha star, who rides with two metal plates and many screws in his shoulder and collar bone after a very nasty Dakar Rally crash last year.
He returned to that punishing event in January after considering retirement, and was lying eighth when engine failure broke his heart just 150km from the end.
« Before the refuelling, I think I was really fast on the sand and after that I just paced myself, » said Van Beveren. « Our sport is really crazy, and it’s hard to explain it to someone who does not do it. Its gives me big emotions to ride at that speed. It’s a big risk, but it’s so good when you take it. »
In the other FIM categories, South African Michael Docherty still dominates Rally2, while Israel’s Dan Katanov tops the SSV 3 class in a KTM EXA.
The Abu Dhabi Aviation helicopters are again playing a vital part in the search and rescue operation for the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge. One helicopter evacuated German rider Sebastian Buhler to Madinat Zayed Hospital today when he sustained a leg injury after falling heavily on the stage.
1. Nasser Al Attiyah / Mathieu Baumel (QAT/AND) – Toyota Hilux, 15:09:08
2. Lucio Alvarez / Armand Monleon (ARG/SPA) – Toyota Hilux Overdrive, 15:32:56.0
3. Denis Krotov / Konstantin Zhiltsov (RUS/RUS) – Mini John Cooper Works Buggy, 16:20:44
4. Yazeed Al Rajhi/ Michael Orr (SAU/GBR) – Toyota Hilux Overdrive, 16:26:44
5. Austin Jones / Gustavo Gugelmin (USA/BRA) – BRP CAN-AM Maverick, 16:37:49
6. Marek Goczal / Lukasz LASKAWIEC (POL/POL) – BRP CAN-AM Maverick, 16:38:50
7. Sebastian Halpern / Bernardo Graue (ARG/ARG) – Mini John Cooper Works Buggy, 16:44:58
8. Kees Koolen / Mirjam Pol (NLD/NLD) – BRP CAN-AM Maverick, 16:56:48
9. Aron Domzala / Maciejk Marton (POL/POL) – BRP CAN-AM Maverick, 16:59:29
10. Saleh Alsaif / Egor Okhotikov (SAU/RUS) – BRP CAN-AM Maverick, 17:06:50…
1. Matthias Walkner (AUT) – KTM 450 Rally Factory Replica, 15:05:20.4
2. Daniel Sanders (AUS) – GASGAS 450 Rally Factory Replica, 15:09:10.0
3. Adrien Van Beveren (FRA) – Yamaha WR450 F01 Rally, 15:10:06.2
4. Joaquim Rodrigues (PRT) – Hero 450 Rally, 15:33:53
5. Aaron Mare (ZAF) – KTM 450 Rally, 16:21:36
6. Konrad Dabrowski (POL) – KTM 450 Rally Replica, 17:42:39.8
7. Sultan Al Balooshi (UAE) – KTM 450 Rally Replica, 17:45:59
8. David McBride (GBR) – Husqvarna 450 Rally, 18:01:50
9. Abdullah Shatti (KWT) – KTM 450 Rally Replica, 19:59:56.8
10. David Mabbs (GBR) – KTM 450 Rally Replica, 20:17:14.2…
Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge rally schedule
11 Nov : Stage 5 Yas Marina Circuit – 162.94km