Abu Dhabi: Stephane Peterhansel cruised to his sixth cars victory in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, while Sam Sunderland surged to his second bikes title in three years on Thursday.
Adding to his status as the world’s most successful cross country rally competitor, Peterhansel claimed another distinction as he combined with wife Andrea over the Abu Dhabi Aviation Stage to become the first married couple to win an FIA World Cup rally.
Avoiding any of the dramas which held up each of their main rivals over five days of punishing desert driving, they took their Mini John Cooper Works Rally home by 8 minutes and 48 seconds from the UAE’s Shaikh Khalid Al Qasimi and Frenchman Xavier Panseri in a Peugeot 3008 DKR.
Brazilian Aron Domzala with Polish co-driver Maciej Marton claimed third place overall in a Toyota Hilux Overdrive on a day when one of the big casualties from the previous leg, Poland’s Jakub Przygonski in a Mini John Cooper Works Buggy, set the fastest stage time.
Sunderland obliterated the opposition on the final leg of the bikes, converting his slender 18s overnight advantage into an 08:20 winning margin from Argentine KTM teammate Luciano Benavides, still a junior and recording his first FIM World Championship podium finish.
Chilean Jose Cornejo finished third, another 01:39 back, with Honda teammate Kevin Benavides, and American Andrew Short and Britain’s Ryan Blair, both riding Husqvarnas, completing the top six.
Finishing fourth overall in the cars category, American Casey Currie in a Can Am Maverick X3 secured the buggies title ahead of Brazilian Reinaldo Varela who was placed fifth in another Can Am ahead of two-time winner Vladimir Vasilyev of Russia in a BMW X3.
Qatari driver Mohammad Al Meer won the T2 production class in a Nissan Patrol which had a huge winning margin over Latvian Aldis Vilcans in a Toyota Land Cruiser. Kuwaiti’s Fahad Al Musallam on a Yamaha captured the quads title, winning by 01:13 from Poland’s Rafal Sonik.
Peterhansel, who won the Desert Challenge bikes crown in 1996 before adding five cars triumphs between 2002-2011, had the look of a champion again from the moment he took the outright lead on the second leg. “This is an incredible moment,” he said at the finish.
“This win is unbelievably special to me and I’m overjoyed to share it with my wife. It was a very physical challenge inside the car, but we made it through and now my mind is on Dakar for us.”
Wife Andrea reflected: “This rally has been about much more than winning. There have been many tough days for us at the Desert Challenge and we have had to work hard and fight for every stage against strong competition.
“And I can say it has been a pleasure to navigate for Stephane. I knew he was a talented driver, but now I know for certain. Months of training have led up this, one of the hardest rallies for both bikes and cars. For sure it was demanding. But, if it worked here, it can work anywhere for us.”
Sunderland clinched his second Desert Challenge bikes title in three years with the kind of performance which stamps him as a rider few can match when he is in full flow on his KTM. Starting seventh today with only a fragile lead over Chile’s Jose Cornejo, he basically had the rally won with barely a quarter of the 214km Abu Dhabi Aviation stage completed as he pulled in the riders ahead with a brilliant surge from the start.
“I’m super happy with today and thankful for the team who have done a great job on the bike all week,” he said.
“It’s great to start the world championship with this rally. Despite not having some of my teammates here, there is always someone fighting you for that top spot. It’s a strategic race so you have to push when it counts and know when to take care on the sections where there is nothing to gain. On paper it can look easy but it doesn’t always turn out that way. This year has been tricky with the wind on the earlier legs creating tough conditions and there were some difficult parts to navigate. It really made the rally the challenge it is supposed to be.”
1. Stephane Peterhansel/Andrea Peterhansel, Mini JC Works Rally 18:03.45
2. Shaikh Khalid Al Qasimi/Xavier Panseri, Peugeot 3008 DKR 18:12.33
3. Aron Domzala/Maciej Marton, Toyota Hilux Overdrive 18:50.01
4. Casey Currie/Laurent Lichtleuchter, Can Am Maverick X3 19:43.18
5. Reinaldo Varela/Gustavo Gugelmin, Can Am Maverick X3 19:44.30
1. Sam Sunderland, KTM 450 Rally Factory 17:46.42
2. Luciano Benavides, KTM 450 Rally Factory 17:55.02
3. Jose Cornejo, Honda CRF 450 Rally 17:56.41
4. Kevin Benavides, Honda CRF 450 Rally 18:21.33
5. Andrew Short, Husqvarna FR 450 18:48.22