Abu Dhabi: Spain’s Nani Roma took a major step towards a first victory in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge on Tuesday, while Dubai-based British rider Sam Sunderland came under pressure but retained his lead in the bikes class on another day of cross-country rallying at its best in the Rub Al Khali.
While defending champion Jean-Louis Schlesser won the spectacular 284km Qasr Al Sarab Stage 3 to take his buggy into third place overall in the cars category, the third fastest time on the day was enough to allow Roma and French co-driver Michel Perin to more than double their overnight lead to 40 minutes 39 seconds in a Mini.
Fourth quickest on the stage, Brazillian Guilherme Spinelli, partnered by Yousuf Haddad in a Mitsubishi ASX, held second place at the end of another demanding passage through the towering dunes of the UAE’s Western Region of Al Garbia.
Dutchman Bernhard Ten Brinke and fellow countryman Erik Van Loon, both driving an HRX Ford X, and Czech driver Miroslav Zapletal in a Hummer H3, completed the top six.
Despite his commanding lead, Roma knows he cannot afford to relax over the final two legs, which is where many other victory hopes have been buried over the years.
He completed the Qasr Al Sarab stage and said: “It was another difficult stage and the sand was very soft. It’s always harder to open a stage and make the tracks, and I was waiting and waiting for the cars to come behind me, but they never came.
“You just need to concentrate that much more in the desert. It’s really tough like that, but that’s the way it is in the Desert Challenge.”
Spinelli said: “Again it was a very difficult stage, and very different from yesterday. In some places it was very fast, in others very slow. I made a mistake just after the start and got stuck,which cost me another ten minutes. But I’m here to learn the desert, so it’s great practice for me.”
Schlesser, partnered by Russian co-driver Konstantin Zhilstov, said: “I had a few difficulties with the car over the last two stages, but it went really well today. I had a good day. I passed a couple of cars and the foot, which I injured a few weeks ago, feels fine in the car.”
“It was another day when the Desert Challenge lived up to its reputation for setting a tough, but fair examination for everyone,” said Dr Mohammad Bin Sulayem, President of the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE, the rally organisers, and founders of the event. “No one ever said this was an easy event.”
Lying ninth overnight and leading the T2 production class — which he was attempting to win for the third year in a row — the UAE’s Yahya Al Helei did not start the stage after co-driver Abdul Haleem Zayed was taken to Medina Zayed Hospital with chest complaints, following the second stage.
It was a day when four of the world’s top cross-country rally bike stars rode together on another dramatic passage through the spectacular dunes of the Rub Al Khali in pursuit of overnight leader Sunderland.
Poland’s Jakub Przygonski was fastest on the Qasr Al Sarab stage from Portugal’s Paulo Goncalves, Spain’s reigning world champion, six-time Desert Challenge winner Marc Coma and Norwegian former world champion Pal Anders Ullevalseter.
But while they managed to close the gap, Sunderland is still out in front, although the pressure on him will be intense over the remaining two days.
Stage winner Przygonski said: “Today was a very good day for me. I got lost yesterday, so I had to make up some time today and I’m really happy with the result. The top four rode this stage together and we also came across a few camels. They weren’t in our way, but it was a cool experience. There were also a lot of nice jumps in this stage.”
The Desert Challenge, which is taking place under the patronage of Shaikh Hamdan Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Ruler’s Representative in the Western Region, is the second round of the FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies for cars, and the opening round of this year’s FIM Cross-Country Rallies World Championship.
The event’s high-profile line-up of strategic partners and supporters includes the Diwan of the Ruler’s Representative for the Western Region, Abu Dhabi Motorsport Management, Nissan, ADNOC, Abu Dhabi Aviation and Qasr Al Sarab Resort by Anantara.