Nasser Al Attiyah competes during the second stage of Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge on Monday.
Gulf Today, Staff Reporter
The 30-year history of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge is crammed with moments of high drama and displays of bravery and perseverance, and the latest chapter is quickly becoming a classic in its own right.
The rally was certainly not won or lost on Monday’s 318km Adnoc Distribution Stage 2, although it ended with the pre-event favourites for the overall drivers’ and riders’ titles out in front, while some high hopes had been dashed.
Nasser Al Attiyah set the fastest stage time for a second day running alongside Mathieu Baumel in a Toyota Hilux, as he looks to clinch a third Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge success, as well as this year’s drivers’ title in the FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies.
The Qatari leads Poland’s Jakub Przygonski and German co-driver Timo Gottschalk in a Mini John Cooper Works Buggy by 6 mins 7 secs, with Argentine Lucio Alvarez and Saudi Arabia’s Yazeed Al Rajhi more than 16 and 25 minutes adrift, respectively, in two more Toyotas.
While this may look comfortable, Attiyah knows from previous experience that a lapse in concentration can blow a much bigger advantage in this event.
The 2008 and 2016 champion admitted at the finish: “It was not an easy day because we took more than four hours driving through the desert. But it was a good experience and we learnt a lot.
“We are excited about the next three days, and we hope to do our best to stay at the top.”
Botswana’s Ross Branch, the overnight bikes leader, saw his victory hopes damaged virtually beyond repair, while new FIM cross country rallies champion Matthias Walkner lifted his prospects of a first Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge win.
Branch suffered a heavy crash on his Yamaha 10km from the end of today’s stage. He is still in fourth place, 5 mins 36 secs from new leader Walkner, but said: “With so much damage to the bike, I think the rally is over for me. I’m so glad to be in one piece.”
Adrien Van Beveren on another Yamaha took the stage honours on the day, but second fastest was enough to give Austrian KTM star Walkner a 2 mins 38.8 secs advantage over the Frenchman.
“I'm super tired – it’s really hot,” said Walkner. “The last 100km I was pushing like hell with force, not to lose time and let the guys catch up.” The UAE’s Mohammed Al Balooshi held his top ten position and will hope experience and local knowledge can see him climb over the next three legs.
Mohammed Ben Sulayem, President of the Emirates Motorsports Organization (EMSO) and FIA Vice President for Sport, arrived at the bivouac from overseas business.
“The rally has many faces, and while it can be incredibly rewarding, there are days when it can be very tough as well,” said the rally founder. “But it’s always fair.”
The drivers’ title remains in the grasp of Nasser Al Attiyah who completed a hat-trick of fastest stage times with Mathieu Baumel in a Toyota Hilux, stretching his overall lead to 11 mins 18 secs.
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