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Chicherit and Despres in control
Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge : Leg 1
BMW X-raid's top-seeded, Guerlain Chicherit and Frenchman, Cyril Despres led the car and motorcycle categories after the opening 442.30km leg of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, This included a 270.60km desert special stage into Abu Dhabi's
Empty Quarter where it was reported that strong winds hampered visibility (Monday March 23 2009).

Despres, riding a factory KTM 690 R, finished the selective section 41 seconds clear of his arch Spanish rival Marc Coma, as the event reached the Tal Mureeb bivouac. Norway's Pal-Anders Ullesvalseter headed Dubai-based Briton, Dave McBride in third overall.

“A stage win is always nice, but I have noticed a difference with the desert since I was here in November,“ said Despres.

“The sand is a different colour and the dunes are ‘more red'. It is amazing what can happen in a few months. It was a strategy to start at the back today. I managed to hit the gatch road first after the refuelling and passed Marc (Coma). Then it was a case of riding fast to the finish. Tomorrow will be another game, with him following me next time.”

Predictably, the battle in the car category developed into a one-horse race with Chicherit and his new Swedish co-driver, Tina Thorner holding a comfortable near 20-minute lead at the end of the leg in their BMW X3 CC.

“I am very happy to get the first desert stage out of the way with a good lead,” said Chicherit.
“It was not easy. It was my first stage with Tina . She is very good, but I have had pace notes in French for many years and, a couple of times, I heard the wrong note in English and made a small mistake. But, we have four more days to get used to each other and for me to gain more experience in the car.”

The UAE's Yayha Al Helai was a distant second overall in his Nissan Patrol, in spite of suffering a heavy landing over a ridge near the end of the stage. Abdullah Al Herais was third,

Dubai-based Briton, Dave McBride topped the strong field in the 450cc category. Sebastien Husseini struggled to match the leading bikes on the high-speed stage, but led the quad category on his KTM 525 XC.

Sixty-nine entrants were flagged away from the landmark Emirates Palace hotel in Abu Dhabi by event Chairman, Mohammed Ben Sulayem, in the presence of representatives from Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA), the title sponsor. Nasser bin Obood of etisalat was also present. Etisalat is providing the satellite and communications feed at the Rally HQ and Bivouac camp site.
From the Emirates Palace, a 53.20km road liaison section guided competitors to the opening 270.60km selective section at Al Dafra. The first day is arguably the easiest of the five desert legs, crossing high-speed sand flats and sabkha en route to the finish, north of Liwa. Some reported that a strong desert wind reduced visibility and hampered progress through the early kilometres.

Sulayem said the strong winds made it a tough ride for participants and organisers : "The air was full of sand today but that's part of the game.

Two riders did lose their seats but, as always, we made sure that all safety procedures were in place and were airlifted swiftly to Mafraq Hospital for treatment."

The UAE's Mohammed Al Shamsi led the entire field into the special stage on his Honda TRX quad, but Coma and Despres soon began their charge through the back-markers, after deciding to position themselves behind their rivals in Sunday's super special.

Al Shamsi was hospitalised with a suspected back injury, shortly before the first passage control, and Poland's Rafal Sonik sustained a broken wrist after falling off his quad.

Przygonski was the first competitor to actually pass the first passage control at the 110km point, although Despres held a 14-second virtual stage lead over Coma heading into the final 160km of the day's stage and extended his advantage to 39 seconds through PC2.

Chicherit set the pace in the cars' category through the first PC. The Frenchman was 8m 17s faster than the UAE's Yayha Al Helai at the 110km point and extended his advantage to 17m 26s at the end of the day's stage.

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