Dubai: The UAE’s Shaikh Khalid Al Qasimi grabbed the halfway lead in the Dubai International Baja powered by Nissan and AW Rostamani on Friday as he left behind a trail of the world’s top drivers in the Al Qudra desert.
Partnered by Frenchman Xavier Panseri in an Abu Dhabi Racing Peugeot 3008 DKR, Shaikh Khalid took a 48-second first leg advantage over Jakub Przygonski, Poland’s defending world champion and last year’s winner, in the second round of the 2019 FIA World Cup for Cross Country Bajas for cars and buggies
Przygonski and German Timo Gottschalk in a Mini John Cooper Works Buggy were another 2:09 ahead of the third-placed Czech pairing of Martin Prokop and Jan Tomanek in a Ford Raptor RS Cross Country on the 201.6km AW Rostamani Arabian Automobiles special stage.
Russia’s two-times Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge winners Vladimir Vasilyev and Konstantin Zhiltsov in a Toyota Hilux Overdrive, Lithuania’s Benediktas Vanagas and Bartlomiej Boba in another Hilux and Czech pairing Miroslav Zapletal and Marek Sykora in an F150 Evo completed the top six.
While top Emirati rider and 2018 Dubai Baja winner Mohammad Al Baloushi suffered a major first-day setback in the opening round of this year’s FIM Bajas World Cup for bikes and quads, UAE-based South African rider Aaron Mare won the opening leg for the second year in a row.
Al Baloushi, the defending world champion, failed to start the stage after his Kawasaki stopped with engine failure on the road section after leaving Dubai Autodrome.
There were no problems for Mare. The rider built up a 5:17 lead from the KTM of UAE-based French rider Benjamin Melot, runner up for the last two years, with Dubai based 2017 winner Mark Ackerman another 2:07 away in third on.
The bikes top six was completed by Kuwait’s Mohammed Jaffar on a KTM, Emirati Sultan Baloushi on a Kawasaki and Ryan Blair on another Husqvarna.
“We’ve had a highly competitive first leg and once again the Dubai desert terrain has shown what a great test it provides for the best drivers and riders from across the region and overseas,” said Mohammad Bin Sulayem, president of the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE, the rally organisers, and FIA vice-president for the sport.
The Dubai International Baja powered by Nissan and AW Rostamani saw 34 cars and buggies and 39 bikes and quads set off from the rally base at Dubai Autodrome.
For top-seeded driver Shaikh Khalid it was the ideal start to the Dubai Baja after mechanical failure on the opening day last year ended his hopes of victory, although he still reported a problem.
He finished the stage to say: “We had an issue with the dampener around the 30km mark and it was knocking about so we didn’t want to push the car too much, which probably cost us a minute or two. I’m very happy to finish in first despite the issues — it’s always a good thing.”
Przygonski said: “It was a good day with, nice off piste and terrain but we had to stop and change a wheel. I’m looking forward to tomorrow but the dunes and sand were very soft today and it seems everyone struggled.”
The rally heads back out into the Al Qudra desert on Saturday for the 204.93km Nissan stage before the event returns to the Autodrome at 12.30pm with the ceremonial finish taking place at 5pm.
Provisional leading positions after AW Rostamani Arabian Automobiles special stage:
1. Shaikh Khalid Al Qasimi / Xavier Panseri 2:42:27
2. Jakub Przygonski / Timo Gottschalk 2:43:15
3. Martin Prokop / Jan Tomanek 2:45:24
4. Vladimir Vasilyev / Konstantin Zhiltsov 2:51:35
5. Benediktas Vanagas / Bartlomiej Boba 2:51:41
1. Aaron Mare 3:09:15
2. Benjamin Melot 3:14:32
3. Mark Ackerman 3:16:39
4. Mohammad Jaffar 3:17:49
5. Sultan Baloushi 3:21:55