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Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge: Chicherit and Thörner in the lead.

BMW X-raid's Guerlain Chicherit and Frenchman Cyril Despres are the overall leaders of the 2009 Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, after the third 340km Nissan-backed loop stage through the emirate's Empty Quarter, on Wednesday.

Chicherit and Swedish co-driver Tina Thorner unofficially extended their advantage over the UAE's Yayha Al-Helai and Khalid Al Kendi to 1h 57m 51s in the car category, their cause helped when Al Helai suffered transmission problems in the latter stages of the day's punishing selective section. But the Frenchman suffered from 'dune sickness' for much of the most difficult stage of the rally and was physically shattered at the finish.

"It was a really tough job to reach the end," said Chicherit. "I was driving so good until the assistance point and I was pushing hard. After that I started to feel a bit sick and I had a big mental fight to keep it going. I think it is a combination of the heat and the motion of being,
like in a boat, in the dunes. The car was perfect, the mechanics did a great job and Tina (Thorner) was superb today. I was not in a good shape and she encouraged me to the finish."

Meanwhile, four-time bike category winner Despres managed to edge ahead of Spain's overnight leader Marc Coma to regain the lead he had held after the opening leg.

"I thought that Marc (Coma) might have taken a little more time out of me than he did today," admitted a relieved Despres. "From the first 25km I really tried to ride hard and gain some time. Now I have to open the road tomorrow and he will catch me. But, then I have the chance to catch him again on the final day and that is important. This is typical for the Desert Challenge. It is never easy!"

Coma remained well clear of third-placed Norwegian Pal-Anders Ullesvalseter, with South African rider Sean Gaugain leading the way in the 450cc class on his Honda CRF 450. The UAE's Mohammed Husseini began the day with a useful lead of over 54 minutes in the quad category and extended his advantage still further after a stunning ride to the seventh fastest time.

Ahmed Hussein, Deputy Director General Tourism Operations Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA), was a fascinated onlooker at the third desert stage. The ADTA is the major sponsor of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge this year, as the UAE's commercial capital strengthens its claim of being the Asian hub of world motor sport.

After a 54.30km transfer from the bivouac to the start, the day's selective section started on time and Coma led the bike contingent into what is widely regarded as the most difficult section of the entire Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge.

Four passage controls (PCs) were located at the 70km, 167km, 221km and 284km points, but Despres was the virtual stage leader through PCs one and two, which were located in the same place and were split by a tricky north-westerly desert loop of 97km.

The Nissan-backed stage then headed west towards the Al Hilew settlement and on to PC3, before turning through a sea of sand dunes to cross the Mizair'a to Arada highway en route to a finish at Tal Mureeb.

Despres had regained the virtual overall lead heading towards PC3, while Chicherit continue to pull away from the pursuing Nissan Patrols of Yayha Al Helai, Abdullah Al Herais and Ahmed Bin Soughat in the car category and was 14 minutes in front of Al Helai at the third checkpoint.

A minor accident and an engine problem forced Italian rider Oscar Polli to return to the bivouac, but Despres maintained his progress at the head of the field through the final dunes and reached the finish in front of Coma. But, the canny Spaniard had reduced the deficit to 1m 47s over the final section and finished the day 22 seconds behind his great rival in the
general classification. Local rider Khalid Al Falaisi fell and was evacuated to a local hospital complaining of back and abdominal pains, and Italy's Alex Zanotti was airlifted out of the dunes suffering from dehydration.

Al Helai dropped crucial time with transmission woes through the final treacherous kilometres, as Ahmed Bin Soughat cruised into second place on the leg and moved up from the lower reaches of the leader board. "Just a little overheating, but it was a good stage for me," said the Emirati.

The solitary Italian Iveco truck, crewed by Marco Dono, Graziano Pelanconi and Atillo Bettiga, started the stage from 10th position among the cars and held 19th at the second passage control en route to the stage finish. Ramesh Pereira was not so fortunate: his Nissan Patrol was damaged by fire on Tuesday and he was unable to continue.

"Thursday (tomorrow) is the last of the loop stages around the bivouac and marks the end of the really difficult sand dunes," admitted event chairman Mohammed Ben Sulayem, FIA Vice-President for Sport and President of the Automobile and Touring Club of the United Arab Emirates ATC UAE). "Saying that, our team has revised the final day and the fifth leg will not be easy at all."

The 2009 Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge has the backing of key players, including the event's title sponsor, Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA), Nissan, ADNOC, Beach Rotana - Abu Dhabi, etisalat, Explorer, Hertz, Lambda Electronics, Oasis Water, TAG Heuer and the ADIMSC.

Leading positions on Leg 3 - Nissan special:

1. Guerlain Chicherit (F)/Tina Thörner (S) BMW X3 CC 5h
04m 14s
2. Ahmed Bin Soughat (UAE)/Wael Marjan (UAE) Nissan Patrol 5h
35m 47s
3. Glenn Reid (AUS)/Paul Richards (GB) Honda Buggy 5h 48m 23s
4. Abdullah Al-Herais (UAE)/Haleem Bin Zayed (UAE) Nissan Patrol 5h
51m 17s
5. Yayha Al Helai (UAE)/Khalid Al Kendi (UAE) Nissan Patrol 6h
09m 37s

1. Cyril Despres (F) KTM 690 R 4h 42m 36s
2. Marc Coma (E) KTM 690 R 4h 44m 23s
3. Pal-Anders Ullesvalseter (N) KTM 690 R 4h 51m 32s
4. Mark Ackerman (ZA) Honda CRF 450 X 4h 53m 34s
5. Sean Gaugain (ZA) Honda CRF 450X 4h 55m 39s
6. Jakub Przygonski (PL) KTM 690 R 4h 58m 59s
7. Sébastien Husseini (UAE) KTM 525 XC 4h 59m 14s*
* denotes leading quad.

Overall positions after Leg 3:

1. Guerlain Chicherit (F)/Tina Thörner (S) BMW X3 CC 12h
10m 57s
2. Yayha Al Helai (UAE)/Khalid Al Kendi (UAE) Nissan Patrol 14h
06m 48s
3. Abdullah Al-Herais (UAE)/Haleem Bin Zayed (UAE) Nissan Patrol 14h
41m 54s

1. Cyril Despres (F) KTM 690 R 12h 10m 13s
2. Marc Coma (E) KTM 690 R 12h 10m 35s
3. Pal-Anders Ullesvalseter (N) KTM 690 R 12h 22m 01s
4. Sean Gaugain (ZA) Honda CRF 450X 12h 38m 21s
5. Jakub Przygonski (PL) KTM 690 R 12h 46m 39s
6. Dave McBride (GB) Honda CRF 450 X 12h 47m 14s
7. Mark Ackerman (ZA) Honda CRF 450 X 13h 00m 26s

2009/03/26 | 01:49 CET | Editor: MR/ADDC/Rita Konya

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