Team Audi Sport’s Stéphane Peterhansel teamed up with fellow Frenchman Edouard Boulanger to secure a start-to-finish victory in his revolutionary new Audi RS Q e-tron at the five-day Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge.
But the seven-time winner of the UAE’s toughest off-road rally is not registered for the new FIA World Rally-Raid Championship (W2RC) and third-placed Chilean driver Francisco Lopez claimed maximum W2RC points, in addition to winning the FIA T3 category in his South Racing Can-Am Maverick.
Peterhansel was quickest on the opening selective section between Abu Dhabi and the remote bivouac at Qasr Al-Sarab and managed his pace perfectly over the subsequent four stages to secure victory over Czech driver Martin Prokop (Ford Raptor) by 29min 49sec.
“This is a really special win, a victory with a really good car,” said Peterhansel. “As the driver I made a few mistakes on some dunes, but that is rallying. I’m delighted to be the first car winner with this new generation of cars.”
Qatar’s Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah and Frenchman Sébastien Loeb arrived in the UAE separated by one point in the Drivers’ Championship, but both the Toyota Gazoo Racing and Bahrain Raid Xtreme entrants hit trouble on the first stage. Al-Attiyah damaged a lower suspension arm, a front-right wheel and collected 16 hours in time penalties, while Loeb damaged his front transmission and lost a couple of hours implanted in soft sand.
From then on, they both pushed hard to try and claim stage bonus points with Al-Attiyah and co-driver Mathieu Baumel winning four stages to earn 26 points and Loeb securing three second places on daily stages and eighth in the overall rankings. Loeb now leads the Qatari by a single point after two rounds.
“It’s really special,” said Loeb. “The place is beautiful. We are in dunes like nowhere else. It’s very exciting to drive in these conditions. It was very difficult in some places. You can crash very easily with some big drops in the dunes. It was important to drive here to take this experience.”
Al-Attiyah said: “When I crossed the finish line of this last stage, I immediately remembered what happened on the first stage. That’s a little bit of a disappointment. But to come back strong, and win the remaining four stages wasn’t easy, and we did a truly amazing job. Our car is really working very well and this is a testament for our teamwork. This was an amazing race, and as usual, we were really happy to compete and be part of the new World Rally-Raid Championship. We showed the speed and the fact that we are here. We still have the confidence to push for the next race.”
With Prokop also not registered for the championship, Spaniard Cristina Gutierrez and her co-driver François Cazalet shadowed Lopez and his co-driver Paulo Ceci to the finish to confirm fourth overall and second in T3. Lopez duly extended his lead in the FIA T3 Driver standings with stage wins on days two and four and now holds fifth in the overall classification.
“These five days were good training. It was a good fight with Cristina, she is a good racer,” said Lopez, who holds a 25-point lead over Gutierrez in the T3 rankings. “There was a lot of pressure on us for the overall standings. This rally is very difficult every time. We are indeed very happy to come here as winners of the last Dakar. And now, we have managed to keep this momentum going. Our team has done a very good job with the car and the results are showing.”
The Polish duo of Marek Goczal and Lukasz Laskawiec finished sixth overall and claimed maximum points in the FIA T4 section in their Cobant Energylandia Rally Team Can-Am, run on the event by South Racing. The Pole finished 22min 18sec in front of Rokas Baciuska and Oriol Mena in the T4 rankings. Goczal’s brother Michal lost out on a potential T4 podium finish after stopping on the stage between Qasr Al-Sarab and Abu Dhabi.
The X-raid Mini JCW Team of Jakub Przygonski and Timo Gottschalk completed the five days of action through the gruelling dunes and across the treacherous sandy trails of the remote Al-Dhafra region of the UAE in fifth overall and first of the registered crews in the T1 category in their Mini John Cooper Works Buggy. The former FIA World Cup winner retains fourth in the Drivers’ Championship as a result.
Toyota Gazoo Racing now holds a 33-point lead over the X-raid Mini JCW Team after two races, with Bahrain Raid Xtreme five points further adrift.
American racer Seth Quintero won one stage and overcame his fair share of technical issues to finish ninth and secure third in T3 in the second of the Overdrive OT3s. OT3 by Overdrive holds fourth in the Manufacturers’ standings.
Saudi Arabia’s Yazeed Al-Rajhi teamed up with Dirk von Zitzewitz and held third place during the early exchanges before stopping after 206km of the third loop stages through the sand dunes. The Overdrive Racing Toyota Hilux driver incurred 16 hours of time penalties for failing to finish the day’s stage, but recovered strongly to earn 19 points and finished 17th overall. He is third in the rankings and trails Loeb by 42 points.
Austin Jones had arrived in the UAE with the early season lead in T4, but the American and Brazilian co-driver Gustavo Gugelmin lost a lot of time in the opening stage. They recovered well to win stages three and five, but the time penalties cost them dearly. Jones still holds a one-point T4 Championship lead over Marek Goczal, with Baciuska 11 points further adrift in third.
Experienced Dutch driver Kees Koolen teamed up with Wouter de Graaf and Gisjbert Van Uden to guide his Iveco Powerstar to 14th overall and victory and maximum W2RC points in the T5 Truck category. Czech rivals, Martin Macik, Frantisek Tomasek and David Svanda, failed to finish and trail their Dutch rivals by 32 points in the T5 rankings.
Action resumes in the FIA World Rally-Raid Championship in Andalucia in June.