The 30-year history of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge is crammed with moments of high drama and displays of bravery and perseverance, and the latest chapter is quickly becoming a classic in its own right.
The rally was certainly not won nor lost on today’s 318km ADNOC Distribution Stage 2, although it ended with the pre-event favourites for the overall drivers’ and riders’ titles out in front, while some high hopes had been dashed.
Nasser Al Attiyah set the fastest stage time for a second day running alongside Mathieu Baumel in a Toyota Hilux, as he looks to clinch a third Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge success, as well as this year’s drivers’ title in the FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies.
The Qatari leads Poland’s Jakub Przygonski and German co-driver Timo Gottschalk in a Mini John Cooper Works Buggy by 6 mins 7 secs, with Argentine Lucio Alvarez and Saudi Arabia’s Yazeed Al Rajhi more than 16 and 25 minutes adrift, respectively, in two more Toyotas.
While this may look comfortable, Al Attiyah knows from previous experience that a lapse in concentration can blow a much bigger advantage in this event.
The 2008 and 2016 champion admitted at the finish: “It was not an easy day because we took more than four hours driving through the desert. But it was a good experience and we learnt a lot. We are excited about the next three days, and we hope to do our best to stay at the top.”
Botswana’s Ross Branch, the overnight bikes leader, saw his victory hopes damaged virtually beyond repair, while new FIM cross country rallies champion Matthias Walkner lifted his prospects of a first Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge win.
Branch suffered a heavy crash on his Yamaha 10km from the end of today’s stage. He is still in fourth place, 5 mins 36 secs from new leader Walkner, but said: “With so much damage to the bike, I think the rally is over for me. I’m so glad to be in one piece.”
Adrien Van Beveren on another Yamaha took the stage honours on the day, but second fastest was enough to give Austrian KTM star Walkner a 2 mins 38.8 secs advantage over the Frenchman.
“I’m super tired – it’s really hot,” said Walkner. “The last 100km I was pushing like hell with force, not to lose time and let the guys catch up.” The UAE’s Sultan Al Balooshi moved into a top ten position and will hope experience and local knowledge can see him climb over the next three legs.
Mohammed Ben Sulayem, President of the Emirates Motorsports Organization (EMSO) and FIA Vice President for Sport, arrived at the bivouac from overseas business. “The rally has many faces, and while it can be incredibly rewarding, there are days when it can be very tough as well,” said the rally founder. “But it’s always fair.”
Out but certainly not down – that’s irrepressible UAE driver Yahya Al Helei whose 30th consecutive appearance in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge was halted by engine failure 142km into yesterday’s stage.
Yahya is staying on to support his son Mansour, who finished the day eighth overall and fourth in the FIA T4 category alongside fellow-Emirati Abdulla Dakhan in a CAN-AM Maverick.
“What happened yesterday sometimes just happens in rallies,” said Yahya. “But I’m happy. I’m happy because this is my rally. It’s the rally I love. I’m happy to be here with all the friends I’ve made on this rally. I will keep taking the challenge for many years to come. Now I will support Mansour. I want to see him become the champion one day.”
Sending the cars, buggies, bikes and quads on a dramatic passage over the Al Dhafrah dune ranges and sand tracks, today’s ADNOC Distribution stage was the kind of which legends have been made over 30 years of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge.
One particularly spectacular range of dunes delivered competitors to the ADNOC Distribution refuel at Arada Fort, ahead of some classic tracks leading to the finish at the bivouac.
Finishing the day fifth overall, American Austin Jones and Brazlilian Gustavo Gugelmin in a CAN-AM Maverick lead the FIA T4 category which has five cars in the top ten.
Russia’s Pavel Lebedev and Kirill Shubin in a CAN-AM Maverick now lead the FIA T3 category while the Czech Republic’s Martin Prokop and Viktor Chytka in a Ford Raptor RS Cross Country have a huge advantage in the class for 2022 specification cars.
Argentinian Manuel Andujar has a big lead over the UAE’s Abdulaziz Ahli in the quads, while Israeli’s Roy Bartov and Guy Biton in a CAN-AM Maverick X3 still set the pace in the FIM SSV 3 category.
Taking place under the patronage of HH Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Ruler’s Representative in Al Dhafrah Region, the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge is supported by the Ruler’s Representative Court Al Dhafrah Region, UAE Armed Forces, the Abu Dhabi Sports Council, ADNOC Distribution, Yas Marina Circuit, Yas Island, Abu Dhabi Aviation, National Ambulance, Al-Futtaim Toyota, Abu Dhabi Police, Abu Dhabi Municipality, Al Dhafrah Region Municipality, Al-Ain Water and Tadweer.
Leading positions after ADNOC Distribution Stage 2 (provisional)
1. Nasser Al Attiyah / Mathieu Baumel (QAT/ AND) / Toyota Hilux 7:55:16.0
2. Jakub Przygonski / Timo Gottschalk (POL / DEU) / Mini John Cooper Works Buggy 8:01:23.0
3. Lucio Alvarez / Armand Monleon (ARG / SPA) / Toyota Hilux Overdrive 8:12:09.0
4. Yazeed Al Rajhi/ Michael Orr (SAU / GBR) / Toyota Hilux Overdrive 8:20:56.0
5. Austin Jones / Gustavo Gugelmin (USA / BRA) / BRP CAN-AM Maverick 8:36:55.0
6. Marek Goczal / Lukasz LASKAWIEC (POL / POL) / BRP CAN-AM Maverick 8:39:17.0
7. Eugenio Amos / Paolo Ceci (ITA / ITA) / BRP CAN-AM Maverick 8:39:53.0
8.Mansour Al Helei / Abdulla Dakhan (ARE / ARE) / BRP CAN-AM Maverick 8:47:36.0
9. Denis Krotov / Konstantin Zhiltsov (RUS / RUS) / Mini John Cooper Works Bugg 8:48:56.0
10. Kees Koolen / Mirjam Pol (NLD / NLD) 8:54:27.0
1. Matthias Walkner (AUT) / KTM 450 Rally Factory Replica / 1 7:52:31.4
2. Adrien Van Beveren (FRA) / Yamaha WR450 F01 Rally / 1 7:55:10.2
3. Daniel Sanders (AUS) / GASGAS 450 Rally Factory Replica / 1 7:56:13.0
4. Ross Branch (BWA) / Yamaha WR450 F01 Rally / 1 7:58:07.4
5. Joaquim Rodrigues (PRT) / Hero 450 Rally / 1 8:16:27.0
6. Andrew Short (USA) / Yamaha WR450 F01 Rally / 1 8:16:28.4
7. Sebastian Buhler (DEU) / Hero 450 Rally / 1 8:26:16.0
8. Aaron Mare (ZAF) / KTM 450 Rally / 1 8:29:52.0
9. Konrad Dabrowski (POL) / KTM 450 Rally Replica / 1 9:28:59.8
10. Sultan Al Balooshi (UAE) / KTM 450 Rally Replica / 1 9:29:48.0
Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge rally schedule
9 Nov Stage 3 Abu Dhabi Sports Council – 293.00km
10 Nov Stage 4 Abu Dhabi Aviation – 251.98km
11 Nov Stage 5 Yas Marina Circuit – 162.94km