Desert Challenge : Leg 1 - Summary
Two-time former World Rally Champion Carlos Sainz and fellow-Spaniard Marc Coma stole the show on the opening leg of the UAE Desert Challenge today (Monday) while five-times winner Stéphane Peterhansel suffered a nightmare start to the
Making his competitive debut in the Middle East, Sainz powered his Volkswagen Race Touareg 2 prototype into a 3mins 43secs lead from 2006 Dakar Rally winner Luc Alphand in a Mitsubishi Pajero Evolution.
Qatar's Middle East rally champion, Nasser Al Attiyah, was third fastest in a BMW X3CC just ahead of Sainz's VW team-mate and ex-World Rally Champion Ari Vatanen in the 284.45km Abu Dhabi Tourist Authority first special stage.
Making it a great day for Spain, reigning world champion Coma took a lead of almost seven minutes over French star Cyril Despres in the battle of the bikes, while another Frenchman, David Casteu, who needs only to finish to snatch the world crown, cruised through the day in fifth place.
Over the years the final round of the FIA Cross Country Rally World Cup has brought great success, as well as frustration, for Peterhansel. The Frenchman has won the Desert Challenge three times as a driver and twice as a rider, but this time he was very much on the receiving end.
Reaching the end of the stage down in eighth place almost 27 minutes off the pace, he said: “That was a very bad day. We crashed in a dune and lost a lot of the front end of the car and, worse still, broke the steering. It is very difficult to drive in the desert without steering.”
After covering himself in glory by winning the previous day's super special stage in Dubai in his Nissan, South African Mark Corbett performed well again to grab a top-ten spot. A splendid third last year, Yahya Alhelei in the Liberty Team Chevrolet Colorado was 11th fastest to finish the day as the highest-placed driver from the host nation.
Held under the patronage of H.H.Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, the 2006 UAE Desert Challenge is sponsored by Nakheel, the premier property developer behind Dubai's most spectacular projects.
The event is also sponsored by Nissan Middle East - with the Nissan Patrol the rally's official car – FedEx, Castrol, Hertz UAE, Mashreq Bank, ADNOC, Emarat, Inmarsat, Gulf News and Oasis Water.
Chief organiser Mohammed Ben Sulayem, who had flagged the cars, bikes and trucks away from the morning start at the Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi, has been trying for years to lure Sainz into the event he launched back in 1991. Having finally made it, the Spanish “matador” was letting his driving do most of his talking, saying only at the end: “It was a very demanding day - too hot that's all there is to say.”
Alphand was a little more talkative, commenting: “The car's in perfect condition. Navigation was clear and the road book great. It was good for the first day but we did lose about one minute stopping for a bike rider who had come off. We are here to train (laugh) and also to win.”
One of the legends of world rallying, Vatananen has been making a name for himself in politics in recent years and he was thinking about this at the end when he said: “During the last 50km I wished I was in my seat at the European parliament. My head has got too hot and has gone into safety mode. It's like a piece of chewing gum.”
Sixth fastest on the day in another Mitsubishi, 2004 Desert Challenge winner Hiroshi Masuoka of Japan was another spelling out his disappointment. “It was not a good day for us,” he said. “The terrain was very difficult and gave us navigation problems and we lost about ten minutes with a navigation error.”
Five-times winner Jean Louis Schlesser was giving a co-driving debut to fellow-Frenchman Emmanuel Guigou, and possibly regretting it for some of the time. “Today was good. I had no problems with the car,” he said. “But my co-driver who was vomiting on most of the stage. If he hadn't been ill we could have gone a lot faster.”
While Coma expressed his pleasure at being back in the UAE and leading the bikes, Casteu was trying hard not to think about the world title that is his barring any disaster in the final round of the FIM Cross Country Rallies World Championship.
“It was a good start for me,” he said. “The weather was very nice and we were riding on the sand (no gravel) all the way. Mark (Coma) is very strong and it will be very tough against him in the Dakar.”