Cyril Despres and Sam Sunderland emerged as the early pacesetters in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge. Image Credit: Supplied

Abu Dhabi: Cyril Despres and Sam Sunderland emerged as the early pacesetters in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge as a heavy sandstorm turned the opening leg into a battle for survival.

High winds churning up a wall of sand made visibility a constant problem as the 262km Yas Marina Circuit Stage wound its way through the dunes towards its conclusion at the bivouac, the rally’s desert base for the next four days on the fringe of the Rub Al Khali.

Partnered by Spain’s Daniel Oliveras in a Mini John Cooper Works Buggy, Frenchman Despres, a five-time ADDC bikes winner, made a positive start in pursuit of his first cars triumph at his second attempt on four wheels.

He completed the stage holding an advantage of five minutes and 45 seconds over Dutchman Bernhard Ten Brinke and Belgian co-driver Tom Colsoul in a Toyota Hilux Overdrive.

Chasing a sixth cars victory, eight years after his last and this time with wife and former rally star Andrea as co-driver, Stephane Peterhansel was just 1:58 further away in third in a Mini John Cooper Works Rally.

The conditions were particularly tough on the 33 bike and quads riders.

Sunderland, the 2017 Desert Challenge and Dakar Rally winner, produced a hugely impressive performance to lead by 6:09 from Andrew Short, the Texan quickly making an impact in cross country rallying after a rock star career in American Supercross and Motocross.

Chile’s Jose Cornejo was 37 seconds away in third with another young rising star, Argentine Luciano Benavides, 2:21 further behind, just ahead of elder brother Kevin.

“It was a day when we saw just how tough and demanding the Desert Challenge can be,” said Mohammad Bin Sulayem, President of the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE and FIA Vice-President for Sport.

Reaching the end of the stage, Despres said: “It has been a long time since I started a stage with a storm and strong winds as we had here today. I could not see the crest of the dunes easily. It was challenging.

“This was our first mission with new co-driver Daniel and we are getting to know each other. Also, I am not used to the desert you have here in Abu Dhabi, I need to get back and learn how to read the tracks much better.”

Standings after Stage 1

Cars

1. Cyril Despres / Daniel Oliveras, Mini JC Works Buggy 3:39:15.0

2. Bernhard Ten Brinke / Tom Colsoul, Toyota Hilux Overdrive 3:45:00.0

3. Stephane Peterhansel / Andrea Peterhansel, Mini JC Works Rally 3:46:58.0

4. Martin Prokop / Viktor Chytka, Ford Raptor RS Cross Country 3:50:01.0

5. Jakub Przygonski / Timo Gottschalk, MINI John Cooper Works Buggy 3:54:02.0

6. Khalid Al Qasimi / Xavier Panseri, Peugeot 3008 DKR 3:54:24.0

7. Aron Domzala / Maciej Marton, Toyota Hilux Overdrive 3:57:10.0

8. Casey Currie / Laurent Lichtleuchter, CAN AM Maverick X3 4:04:35.0

9. Reinaldo Varela / Gustavo Gugelmin, CAN AM Maverick X3 4:05:43.0

10. Vladimir Vasilyev / Konstantin Zhiltsov, BMW X3 4:08:08.0

Bikes

1. Sam Sunderland, KTM 450 Rally Factory 3:40:41.0

2. Andrew Short, HUSQVARNA FR 450 3:46:50.0

3. Jose Cornejo, Honda CRF 450 Rally 3:47:27.0

4. Luciano Benavides, KTM 450 Rally Factory 3:49:48.0

5. Kevin Benavides, Honda CRF 450 Rally 3:55:08.0

6. Mark Ackerman, HUSQVARNA F 450 RR 4:21:12.0

7. Ryan Blair, HUSQVARNA F 450 RR 4:21:30.0

8. Mohammad Al Baloushi, KTM 450 Rally Replica 4:23:30.0

9. David McBride, KTM 450 Rally 4:41:47.0

10. Mohammed Meshari Jaffar, KTM 450 Rally Replica 4:44:56.0