Experience really showed on Leg 3 of this year’s Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, with two defending Desert Challenge champions enjoying strong performances among the towering dunes. Marc Coma furthered his overall lead in the bikes category while Russian driver Leonid Novitskiy gained his first stage win of the week, which catapulted him to the top of the car standings. Meanwhile, the UAE’s Mohammed Al Shamsi triumphed in the quads category for a second day in a row, placing him even further ahead of the nearest competitor.
Further down the field, and testament to the extremely demanding nature of the rally, a number of racers were forced to retire due to both medical and mechanical issues. If it wasn’t already clear, the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, which is the second round of the FIA Cross Country Rally World Cup and the season opener of the FIM Cross Country Rallies World Championship, is not a race to be taken on lightly.
In a unique moment in the rally’s history, Mohammed Ben Sulayem, Vice-president of the FIA and president of the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE, waved off the top competitors for the second stage of the day from outside the gates of the luxurious Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara. “We were a little bit worried about the distance, but then that is part of the challenge,” he said. “A lot of the competitors talked about how demanding the stage was. It really takes its toll on man and machine.”
Defending champion Marc Coma, of the KTM Factory Team, reasserted his dominance today, navigating through a tightly-packed field for much of the day. His combined time of 4h 04m 46s over the two stages of today’s leg was enough to earn him first place and retain his spot at the top of the overall bike standings. Overall second-placed Helder Rodrigues finished the day 2m 37s behind the Spaniard, while Jakub Przygonski retained his position in third for another day.
Emirati Mohammed Al Shamsi has enjoyed an excellent Desert Challenge, and today picked up a convincing victory in the quads category, finishing ahead of the pack in both stages of the Qasr Al Sarab leg. He finished today’s leg in 4h 40m 38s, and is now sitting comfortably at the top of the overall quads standings, ahead of fellow countryman Atif Al-Zarouni.
Today’s Qasr Al Sarab leg also saw a number of injuries and mechanical problems, highlighting the difficulties involved with taking on such a tough rally. One high profile casualty was Mohammed Balooshi, who was forced out of the challenge early in the day, having fallen off his KTM rally bike, suffering a suspected broken right arm and collarbone in the process. “Despite what happened, I will not be giving up,” he said. “All of the world’s rally champions have endured similar injuries. What I need to do now is get back on my feet and train for next year.”
Yesterday’s record-breaking stage winner, and first-time Desert Challenge entrant, Sam Sunderland found himself going well through the opening hour of today’s leg. However his day ended early when his KTM 450 bike broke down completely, leaving him with engine coolant covering one leg, and oil the other.
Another Dubai-based rookie, 20-year-old Brittany Erasmus, also ran into severe problems when, during the brief stop in between the two stages, medical staff advised her not to continue due to low blood sugar level. However, she is still determined to see out the next two legs.
“We had a couple of injuries today but there was nothing too serious,” said Ronan Morgan, Clerk of the Course. “Everything was handled smoothly, and everyone was alright – that’s the most important thing.”