Abu Dhabi, UAE, 25 March, 2018: French driver Luc Alphand produced a stunning comeback performance to take the lead in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge powered by Nissan today as Australian rider Toby Price snatched the early advantage in the bikes category.
Partnered by German co-driver Andreas Schultz in a Buggy Ford 2WD, Alphand took the opening 276 kmYas Marina Circuit Stage by 1 min 19.8 secs from the recent Dubai International Baja winners, Poland’s Jakub Przygonski and Belgian co-driver Tom Colsoul in Mini John Cooper.
It was a remarkable display by Alphand, the former World Cup downhill skiing champion who won both the Desert Challenge and the Dakar Rally in 2006 but retired from competitive motor sport eight years ago after suffering serious injuries in a motor bike accident.
Ending the first leg in third place in the cars category another 1 min 48.7secs away were Saudi Arabia’s Yasir Seaidan accompanied by Russia’s Aleksei Kuzmich in a Toyota Hilux Overdrive.
The UAE’s defending champion, Khalid Al Qassimi, finished the day in fourth place, just under nine minutes off the lead alongside French co-driver Xavier Panseri in their Peugeot Abu Dhabi Racing Team 3008 DKR.
Czechs Martin Prokop and Jan Tomanek in a Ford F-150 Evo and two-times Desert Challenge champions Vladimir Vasilyev and Konstantin Zhiltsov in a Mini Cooperrounded off the top six, while Emiratis Khalid Al Jafla and Ahmad Malik in a Nissan Trophy Truck finished the day in 10th.
Price, who captured the Desert Challenge title in 2016, produced an impeccable display to take the stage by 2 mins 51 secs from Dubai-based defending champion Sam Sunderland, with reigning Dakar Rally winner Matthias Walkner of Austria completing a KTM 1-2-3 another 4 mins 29 secs away.
Argentinian Kevin Benavides on a Honda, Chile’s Pablo Quintanilla riding a Husqvarna and American Ricky Brabec on another Honda completed the top six.
With the world’s top cross country rally stars setting a tremendous pace up front, leading UAE rider Mohammed Al Balooshi, winner of the recent Dubai International Baja, finished the leg in ninth place.
Alphand, who has been sharpening his driving skills during thousands of kilometres of testing for the X-Raid team, did not stop to reflect on his return to competitive action at the end of the stage, quickly heading off without speaking to anyone.
“That was a great drive from Luc who showed that he’s lost none of his competiveness,” said Mohammed Ben Sulayem, President of the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE and Emirates Motorsport Federation. “But he knows there’s a long way to go and he will need to use all his experience over the next four days.”
Taking place under the patronage of H.H. Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Ruler's Representative in Al Dafrah Region, the Abu Dhabi Desert Challengeforms the third round of the 2018 FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies for cars and buggies and the opening round of this year’s FIM Cross Country Rallies World Championship for bikes and quads.
Przygonski completed the stage to say: “It wasa long stage which was not so easy. We kept pushing and do not know how the other two (Alphand and Seidan) got past us. It was quite hot and the sand was soft, but it’s a good start for us.”
Seaidan said: “The stage was very flat at the start so we went flat out, faster than the buggy of Luc Alphand. We had a beautiful drive and really enjoyed it.”
Al Qassimi, who still has his sights set on a second successive Desert Challenge win, said: “We had a very good race today. The terrain was tricky and it was quite hard to find our momentum over the dunes. Overall I enjoyed the days racing.”
A modest Price reached the end of the stage to say: “It was difficult to read the dunes, but all in all a good stage. I finished in one piece and had no crashes.”
Reflecting on a difficult day, Sunderland said: “I’m a little frustrated with how it went. I ended up lost and due to a bad choice my tyre burned out about 20 km before refuelling. The team fixed it quickly and I did well to catch up the rest but I made a mistake on the track, ending up off piste. I’m glad the day’s racing is over.”
Walkner commented: “It was a fast stage with lots of rises and it was rough to focus on, hard to see and hard to start in front. Overall I felt good about the stage.”
Al Balooshi said at the end of the stage: “I’m really happy with today’s riding. I feel that I’ve done much better than last year in speed and performance. It was soft terrain so I had to keep composed and I didn’t make any mistakes. There were a few times where I could catch the rest of the group but I tried to keep pace and not take unnecessary risks.”
Saudi Arabia’s Yazeed Al-Rajhi, Italian Eugenio Amos and Austrian Christopher Rosenberger had all started the day with five minute penalties after missing yesterday’s super stage because of the late arrival of their trio of Minis in the UAE.
The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge Powered by Nissan is supported by Al Dafrah Region Municipality, Abu Dhabi Municipality, the UAE Army, Abu Dhabi Police, Nissan Middle East, ADNOC, Abu Dhabi Aviation, Al-Ain Water, National Ambulance Service, Tadweer, Yas Marina Circuit and the Qasr Al-Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara.
Provisional leading positions after Yas Marina Circuit Stage
1. Luc Alphand / Andreas Schultz (FRA / DEU) /Buggy Ford 2WD 3:13:10.3
2. Jakub Przygonski / Tom Colsoul (POL / BEL) / Mini John Cooper 3:14:30.1
3. YasirSeaidan / Aleksei Kuzmich (KSA / RUS) / Toyota Hilux Overdrive 3:16:18.8
4. Khalid Al Qassimi / Xavier Panseri (ARE /FRA) / Peugeot 3008 DKR 3:21:58.1
5. Martin Prokop / Jan Tomanek (CZE / CZE) / Ford F-150 Evo 3:23:51.9
6. Vladimir Vasilyev / Konstantin Zhiltsov (RUS / RUS) / Mini Cooper 3:24:09.5
7. Cyril Despres / Steve Ravussin (FRA / CHE) Mini John Cooper Works Buggy 3:26:43.5
8. Harry Hunt / Sebastien Delauney (GBR / FRA) / Peugeot 2008 DKR 3:30:28.7
9. Yazeed Al-Rajhi / Timo Gottschalk (KSA / DEU) / Mini John Cooper 3:31:08.2
10. Khalid Al Jafla / Ahmad Malik (ARE / ARE) / Nissan Trophy Truck 3:35:35.4
1. Toby Price (AUS) / KTM 450 3:13:00
2. Sam Sunderland (ARE) / KTM 450 3:15:51
3. Matthias Walkner (AUT) / KTM 450 3:20:20
4. Kevin Benavides (ARG) / Honda CRF 450 3:22:36
5. Pablo Quintanilla (CHL) / Husqvarna 450 3:23:42
6. Ricky Brabec (USA) / Honda CRF 450 3:24:55
7 Paulo Goncalves (POR) / Honda CRF 450 3:30:09
8. Jose Ignacio Cornejo F (CHL) / Honda CRF 450 3:32:21
9. Mohammed Al Balooshi (ARE) / KTM 450 3:32:23
10. Michael Metge (FRA) / Honda CRF 450 3:34:06
Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge Powered By Nissan – remaining rally schedule:
Monday: Nissan Stage 2 (287.92km)
Tuesday: Al Ain Water Stage 3 (281.38km)
Wednesday: ADNOC Stage 4 (244.49km)
Thursday: Abu Dhabi Aviation Stage 5 (218.57km)
Finish: Yas Marina Circuit – 4.30pm.