Desert Challenge : Leg 4 - Summary
Barring any final leg disasters, two Frenchman, and a Spaniard can look forward to celebrations in Dubai tomorrow afternoon (Friday) when the UAE Desert Challenge returns its survivors from the Empty Quarter.
Luc Alphand, skier extraordinaire
turned driver, leads by 20 mins 44 secs from Mitsubishi team-mate Stephane Peterhansel after the 378.9km Nissan Special Stage 4 and looks certain to follow up his Dakar Rally triumph at the start of the year with another win to round it off.
Equally in control in a KTM-dominated bikes tussle, Spain's Marc Coma extended his overnight lead by 11 minutes to head Frenchman Cyril Despres by more than 18 minutes with a day to go.
Climbing one place to fourth following the enforced retirement on the day of Spaniard Isidre Esteve, French rider David Casteu will succeed Coma as FIM Cross Country Rallies world champion as long as he avoids a similar misfortune on the last leg.
Nissan's unofficial “king of the desert” title for the day went to two-times former World Rally Champion, Carlos Sainz, who has been having an up and down time on his first competitive appearance in the Middle East.
After winning the opening day's special stage in great style, he was left in the desert wilderness by a broken drive shaft 24 hours later and must now hope that today's (Thursday) performance can be matched by consistency in the Volkswagen Race Touareg 2 prototype.
That is something that is certainly not happening for VW at present, a point emphasised by Ari Vatanen's retirement with a blown engine after his car's gearbox broke the previous day.
Making it a French 1-2-3 at the top of the cars battle is veteran Jean-Louis Schlesser, whose buggy has only two wheel drive but holds an abundance of experience and desert knowhow in the cockpit.
Portugal's Carlos Sousa in another VW, followed by Qatar's Middle East rally champion Nasser Al Attiyah – second fastest on the day – and Germany's Jutta Kleinschmidt in two X-raid BMWs, complete the top six. Flying the flag for the UAE, Liberty Chevrolet team-mates Yahya Alhelei and Ahmad Bin Suqat both hold the last two top ten places ahead of Sainz in 11th position.
Relaxing back at the Moreeb Hill bivouac after another long and hot day at the office, Sainz said: “It was a lot tougher today, very hot. The first part was a bit slower than usual but in the second part of the stage we tried to go a bit quicker and it worked. We have come here to try different things. Some have worked and others not as well as we would have liked. But in general we should be quite pleased, and we've still got two months to prepare for the Dakar Rally.”
It will take a double disaster en route to the finish in Dubai to prevent Mitsubishi from claiming the FIA Cross Country Rally World Cup team title, although that almost happened today. Peterhansel reached the finish of the Nissan stage to say: “It's been a long day and not easy. At around 60-70kms we hit a big dune and lot three or four minutes, losing a bit of the front of the car in the process.”
Alphand, whose victory chances almost went downhill on the day, said: “We started fast and then we hit a sand dune, probably the same one as Stephane, and then lost time with navigation. In the final part the chief said to slow down - no need to risk things by chasing Carlos and Jean-Louis.”
Perfect day for Marc Coma
Coma, who was in Casteu's boots last year, needing only to finish the event to become world champion, said: “It's been a long ride today and too hot. I was able to pass Chris Blais at 60kms and from there on being first was difficult. But it's been a perfect day on the bike.”
Despres, in a little discomfort at the end, explained: “Today was much harder. I had a bad start when I crashed in the subka section at 40kms. I couldn't sit on my bike because I hurt my backside. I feel better now that I've finished.”
American Blais, who won his first ever stage the previous day, was sandwiched in between Coma and Despres this time to go fifth overall. “It's been different today but good,” he said. “There were a lot of dunes and some of them were very tough. Coma caught me at 60kms. I stayed with him for a while but he slowly moved away. It's been really hot. The terrain is not like at home in California. There's a possibility I'll come back to the Desert Challenge again.”
Meanwhile, the game of patience goes on for Casteu, although the world title is now almost within sight. “I had to really concentrate a lot today because there were so many tracks from the first day so I had to be really focused,” he said.