ABU DHABI: Stephane Peterhansel claimed a record-breaking seventh cars title at the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge with an assured drive on Thursday, as Sam Sunderland secured a third bikes title in the event.
While the 209-kilometer Abu Dhabi Sports Council Stage 5 had the potential to repeat some of the final-day dramas of previous years, cool heads ensured that Peterhansel and Sunderland finished safely at Yas Marina Circuit, after a demanding five-day passage through the Al-Dhafra dunes.
Partnered by Edouard Boulanger in his Audi RS Q e-tron, the Frenchman recorded a winning margin of 29 minutes 49 seconds from the 2018 winner, Czech Martin Prokop, who was accompanied by Viktor Chytka in a Ford Raptor.
Peterhansel has now surpassed the six cars victories of Jean-Louis Schlesser, and as a result of his bikes win back in 1996, has an overall Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge record equaling the eight triumphs of Spanish rider Marc Coma.
“This is a really special win, a victory with a really good car,” he said at the end of the Abu Dhabi Sports Council stage. “As the driver I made a few mistakes on some dunes, but that is rallying. I’m delighted to be the first car winner with this new generation of cars.”
Sunderland started the last day with a fragile 23-seconds advantage on his GasGas, but quickly showed how the best riders handle pressure. He pulled away to win by 3:8 from American Ricky Brabec, whose Honda teammate, Chilean Pablo Quintanilla, was another 48 seconds away in third place.
Sunderland, who added to his Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge wins in 2017 and 2019, declared at the finish: “I feel really cool. The desert challenge is always difficult, and this one more so because everyone was going really fast. It was a tough race, quite physical. Honestly, I am really happy, and it’s a great second round of the (World Rally-Raid Championship) championship.”
Giving the host country a title win to celebrate for a second Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge in four months, Emirati rider Abdulaziz Ahli on a Yamaha Raptor retained his quads crown with a massive 2 hours, 5 minutes to spare over Slovakia’s Juraj Varga.
“Winning this time feels much better than the last time because this time I feel I worked really hard for it, and all this hard work finally really paid off,” Ahli said. “I am really happy as the idea was to keep pushing each day. Today was different as I didn’t want to push much, but just ensure I finish the race in one piece.
“It’s such a great feeling for me as this is the first time for anyone to win the quads category two times in a row,” the Emirati added. “I am very happy and I believe I have set some new records in this race, so very happy with that as well.”
The rally’s toughness this week has seen many of the leading challengers for the drivers’ crown fall from contention, none more so than Nasser Al-Attiyah, whose hopes of a fourth win were ended by a broken wheel on the first leg.
Focused since then on protecting his lead in the new WRRC championship, the Qatari completed a run of four successive stage wins today alongside Mathieu Baumel in his Toyota Hilux, with more valuable WRRC points compensating him for many hours of time penalties.
Al-Attiyah said: “When I crossed the finish line of this last stage, I immediately remembered what happened on the first stage. That’s a little bit of a disappointment. But to come back strong and win the remaining four stages wasn’t easy, and we did a truly amazing job.”
Chile’s Francisco Lopez Conrad in a Can-AM Maverick landed the third overall podium spot, and the T3 title for lightweight vehicles, ahead of Spain’s Cristina Gutierrez in an Overdrive OT3, and the next T1 finisher, Poland’s Jakub Przygonski, who took fifth in his Mini John Cooper Works Buggy. Poland’s Marek Goczal claimed sixth position overall in another Can-AM Maverick to win the T4 category.
Nine-time World Rally Champion Sebastien Loeb, Al-Attiyah’s chief WRRC rival and another first leg mechanical victim, was third fastest on the day in his Prodrive Hunter, despite losing three minutes with two punctures. He finished eighth on his debut in the event.
The WRC legend Loeb was clearly impressed with the event on his first attempt. “It’s really special,” he said. “The place is beautiful. We are in dunes like nowhere else.
“It’s very exciting to drive in these conditions. It’s very difficult in some places. You can crash very easily with some big drops in the dunes. It was important to drive here to take this experience.”
With Czech favorite Martin Macik out of the running for the trucks title after major second leg problems, Kees Koolen’s Dutch trio cruised to T5 victory in their
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