|Abu Dhabi DC: Schlesser and Coma retain top positions ahead of final stage.|
After four days of intense competition, both against the desert and each other, the remaining competitors in this year’s Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge are tantalisingly close to the finish line.
Jean-Louis Schlesser, Marc Coma and Obaid Al Kitbe from the UAE will all be dreaming of victory as they sit in top place in the car, bike and quad categories respectively with just 287 kilometres to go.
The toughest stage of the rally, today’s 317 kilometre leg pushed the rally’s remaining competitors and their vehicles to the max ahead of Friday’s departure from the beautiful Western Region of Al Gharbia and on to the finish line at Al Dafrah. This penultimate leg is appropriately named after Nissan, a long-term supporter of the rally, whose flagship Patrol SUV is the race’s official car.
Driving the Team X-Raid Mini All4, Khalifa Al-Mutaiwei has enjoyed an impressive return to racing in the UAE, but got stuck in sand towards the end of today’s stage, seriously damaging his chances of a remarkable comeback win. The result nevertheless extended his lead over third place Patrick Sireyjol from France.
This left veteran racer Jean-Louis Schlesser looking odds-on to record a remarkable sixth Desert Challenge win, his first since 2003. The Frenchman enjoyed a good day behind the wheel of his Sonangol Buggy, finishing over 21 minutes ahead of Al-Mutaiwei to open up a 38:03 mins lead over the Emirati.
Reinforcing the extreme nature of the competition, and the incredible demands it places on competitors and their vehicles alike, only around 60% of the cars that started remain in the rally. Of these, six are piloted by Emiratis, and a seventh by Ibrahim Al Muhanna from Saudi Arabia.
Current FIM World Champion, Helder Rodrigues claimed his first stage win of the rally, ahead of current Desert Challenge champion, Marc Coma, who finished 15:26 mins behind in eleventh. But it wasn’t enough to change the overall lead, which Coma retained, albeit by a reduced margin.
Ahead of tomorrow’s final stage, the Spaniard is 6:34 mins ahead of fellow countryman Joan Barreda-Bort, and 8:25 mins ahead of Portuguese rider, Paulo Goncalves in third. Sean Gaugain of the Gecko Team is the highest placed UAE rider, in seventh place overall, while Emirati Mohammed Balooshi is 13th.
Today was a long day, with a long track. We opened the track for the others, so we lost some time, but it’s still ok," said Coma. "Tomorrow is another long stage where you could lose a lot of time, but equally where you could gain it, so overall we’re in pretty good shape."
A bad day for UAE resident Sebastian Husseini, who broke his quad’s suspension, meant it was a particularly good one for Emirati Obaid Al Kitbe in the quad bike category. Al Kitbe’s stage win, combined with Husseini’s misfortune, means that the Umm Al Quwain resident now holds a lead of more than 1h 50m over his new closest challenger Lukasz Laskawiec from Poland
Ahead of what he hopes will be a triumphant return to Yas Marina tomorrow, Obaid commented: "I kept my energy for tomorrow. One of my tyres was flat but I made it back. I’m hoping for a good race tomorrow, hoping to keep my lead, and hoping to finish the race in front, which is the dream of all racers."
With Husseini dropping down to eighth, behind Atif Al Zaroni, Camelia Liparoti jumped into third position, and will be looking to follow up on her impressive second place last year with a second successive podium position. Currently sitting in fifth position, another female entrant, Andrea Mayer from Germany, will also be holding hopes for a top three finish.
The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge carries a particular emotional appeal for the many Emiratis who enter each year. The chance to compete in their homeland, against the world’s top riders and drivers is an unmissable opportunity for any serious racer. And the sand dunes that cover the majority of the 1,520 kilometres of competitive stages act as a great leveller, offering the local stars the chance of toppling the big names.
One such racer is Yahya Bel Helei, who has competed in every single Desert Challenge since it was founded 22 years ago. Having finished fourth last year, Bel Helei is currently in fifth place and still holds out hopes of claiming a top three position with co-driver Khalid Al Kendi in their Nissan Patrol.
"I think I have done very well up until now, especially considering I am competing against world class drivers, who are racing in cars built specifically for this desert terrain," he said. "The Liwa desert is a very difficult place to race, and only competitors who have taken part in the Desert Challenge can fully understand this. As we head into the final day, I am very pleased to be leading the T2 category and in fourth place overall."
Nabil Al Shamsi and co-driver Salem Rashed have also enjoyed some success this year, although day four was marred by a broken driveshaft, leaving them out of the running for a podium position. "I will be working hard to fix the problem with my team and am looking forward to starting again tomorrow. The great thing about the Desert Challenge is that every day is a new race," said Al Shamsi.
"This is the biggest rally in the Middle East," he added. "I’m really happy to welcome so many top international competitors to the UAE and it’s a great feeling when you pass champions from other countries, but my competition is really against the desert itself, not other drivers."
Renowned as being one of the world’s most difficult, technically demanding endurance rallies, the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge attracts the best racers from across the globe, determined to conquer the towering sand dunes and extreme heat of the Western Region.
2012/04/06 | 19:08 CET | ARTICLE: MR/SY/DRINKWATER/AZIZ