|Abu Dhabi DC: UAE rallydrivers enjoy great start into 2012 Desert Challenge.|
Competitors from the United Arab Emirates enjoyed a strong start on day one of this year’s Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge. At the end of the 300km Nissan Patrol Leg 1, five of the nine podium places across the three categories had been filled by UAE nationals and residents.
Khalifa Al-Mutaiwei marked his return to competitive racing in the UAE after eight years away from the sport with an impressive first day, finishing second in the car category behind early leader Jean-Louis Schlesser. Racing in the Team X-Raid Mini All4 Racing, Al-Mutaiwei nevertheless found himself battling the difficult terrain.
"I got stuck in the same place three times," said Al-Mutaiwei. "It was very sandy and I wanted to take a path to the left, but there was a motorcycle stuck there, so I got stuck myself and we had to dig ourselves out. This is where I lost the time, but I am not too unhappy - I still have the speed I had seven years ago."
His Emirati compatriot, Yahya Bel Helei is also a celebrating a milestone this year - a remarkable 22nd consecutive appearance in the Desert Challenge - and put in a typically robust performance to finish third, just over five minutes behind Al-Mutaiwei and ahead of many of many big international names.
In the bike category, reigning champion, Marc Coma laid down the gauntlet to his title challengers in the best possible way by claiming a stage win ahead of very strong competition.
The legendary Spanish racer, riding a KTM, came in first with a time of 3h 33m 22s, but that was only just enough to hold off the challenge from current FIM world champion, Helder Rodrigues, and a UAE-based star in the making, Sam Sunderland.
Portuguese rallying star, Rodrigues came in just over a minute behind Coma on his Yamaha, and a similar distance ahead of Sunderland. Riding for the Honda team, the Dubai-based youngster, who last year made history becoming the youngest ever rider to win a stage on the Desert Challenge, impressed again, despite the handicap of a pre-race injury.
"I started at the back, as that was our strategy," said Sunderland. "It was hot and long, but worked well. I tried to be cautious, because of my foot, but the last 50km was really hard - I’m now waiting to see the physio before tomorrow’s stage to check out my foot."
UAE riders set the early pace in the quads category, with Emirati Obaid Al Kitbe claiming the overall stage win. Riding a Honda TRX 900CC, the Sharjah resident finished half an hour ahead of his nearest challenger and fellow UAE resident, Sebastian Husseini, who had finished first in Sunday’s Super Special Stage. Lukasz Laskawiec from Poland came in third.
Al Kitbe said: "I set off in 53rd place, and made a few mistakes but it all worked out well in the end. I’m trying to pace myself a bit for the race ahead. The next stages will be harder, and the toughest will be the third, but if you finish that one, you’ve got a very good chance of completing the whole rally."
2012/04/03 | 18:52 CET | ARTICLE: MR/SY/DRINKWATER/AZIZ