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Nasser Al Attiyah tackling a dune during the challenging stage in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge on Tuesday. Image Credit: Supplied

Abu Dhabi: The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge has earned a well-deserved reputation as one of the most challenging and visually spectacular rally-raids, and this year’s Ruler’s Representative Court in Al Dhafra Region Stage 1 threw the competitors in at the deep end. The opening stage started south-west of Al Dhannah City, and covered a total of 374 kilometres, with 248km of special stages through some of the most challenging dunes and sections in the Rub’ Al Khali.

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After a dream start in Monday’s Prologue for Nasser Al Attiyah and his new co-driver Edouard Boulanger, Tuesday proved to be a more complex story with the duo losing time to Guerlian Chicherit and running down in ninth in the early stages after getting stuck on the crest of a dune. Al Attiyah then surged ahead to a 3’08” win over De Mevius, with Juan Cruz Yacopini in third place and Chicherit crossing the finish line a shade under 20 minutes behind the winners.

In the Challenger category, Monday’s winner Cristina Gutierrez stopped at the 93-kilometre mark when her car ran out of coolant, asking to be removed from the stage to avoid breaking her engine. This allowed Austin Jones (Can-Am Factory) to take control of the special, ahead of his teammate Rokas Baciuska, and Laia Sanz (BBR) in third.

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Marcelo Tiglia Gastaldi during the 374-kilometre Stage 1 on Tuesday. Image Credit: Supplied

In the SSV category, Emirati athlete Mansour Al Helei (RX-Sport) and Joao Ferreira (Can-Am Factory) were within seconds of each other for most of the stage before the Portuguese rider put over a minute between himself and Al Helei to take the stage win.

Character of Al Dhafra

The battle of the bikes continued, with Hero rider Ross Branch leading Michael Docherty (SRG Motorsports) until the 131st kilometre, when engine noises forced him to slow down, allowing Docherty to take the stage, with Branch’s teammate Aaron Mare in second place. Konrad Dąbrowski (Duust Rally) came in third, followed by Tobias Ebster (Hero MotoSports) and Jean-Loup Lepan (Duust Rally).

Branch limped home over 28 minutes adrift, but that gap could get worse if he is forced to replace his engine, incurring a 15-minute penalty. In the Quads, Abdulaziz Ahli returned to winning ways, taking a big chunk of time out of Kamil Wisniewski, with both riders trying to get the most out of their Yamaha Raptors.

Nasser Mohammed Al Mansouri, Undersecretary of the Court of the Ruler’s Representative in the Al Dhafra Region, said: “Hosting the 33rd edition of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge in the Al Dhafra Region represents a major event and important moments for the residents of the region, indicating that hosting the best drivers and riders in the world as they race in the most beautiful natural and desert locations represents an opportunity for us to showcase the rich and diverse environmental and cultural heritage that characterises the Al Dhafra region.”

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Ross Branch limped home 28 minutes adrift of the stage winner after engine noises forced him to slow down. Image Credit: Supplied

Arch of several small oases

ADNOC Distribution Stage 2 sets out from Madinat Zayed and finishes 365 kilometres later in Mezaira’a. The region is home to Tal Moreeb, which is one of the largest dunes in the world at 300 metres high and 1.2 kilometres long.

Mezaira’a remains the centre of traditional culture, as well as Mezaira’a Fort, which lies in the Liwa Oasis, an arch of several small oases that stretches over 110 kilometres. Wednesday’s stage will involve yet another major feat of logistics, moving the entire event to a second bivouac in Mezaira’a, over 350 kilometres away.

Emirates Motor Sports Organisation (EMSO) President Khalid Ben Sulayem, commented: “Stage 1 provided some dramatic moments. We leave Al Dhannah City after a wonderful two days of enthusiasm and warm interactions between the teams, local community and numerous rally fans. I would like to thank everyone in Al Dhannah City for being part of something truly memorable. The passion of the inhabitants for our race was unprecedented and having Nasser Al Attiyah visit the children’s wing of the local hospital was a truly moving occasion.”