There are few things that Stéphane Peterhansel has not achieved in cross country rallying, although winning an event with his wife for company, now a real possibility in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge Powered by Nissan, would be another first.
It is eight years since the Frenchman won the last of his five Desert Challenge cars titles, but he has another in his sights, despite recording only the fourth fastest time on today’s 222.80km Al Ain Water stage in a Mini John Cooper Works Rally as another sandstorm pounded the Rub Al Khali.
While Saudi Arabia’s Yazeed Al- Rajhi left behind the previous day’s disastrous transmission problems to win the stage in a Toyota Hilux Overdrive, Peterhansel ended it with a 2 mins 26 secs outright lead from Dutchman Bernhard Ten Brinke.
Right up until the eve of rally there were doubts as to whether Peterhansel’s wife Andrea would join him in the car because of travel sickness issues, something which never troubled her as a top class rider and driver.
They faced a fresh challenge today, after Ten Brinke’s Toyota and the Mini JCW Buggy of overnight leader Cyril Despres joined a trail of casualties to get stuck in soft sand, leaving them out in front with only the dunes ahead.
“It was a complicated stage and we saw a few cars ahead struggling and getting stuck, so we played it safe and went not too fast,” said the 13-times Dakar Rally winner at the end.
“There was still a lot of wind which makes the dunes difficult and leading the cars for the stage was a new experience for my wife as there was no tracks to follow.”
With a fragile lead, Peterhansel now has a pack of proven winners at the top level now hounding him.
Just 32 seconds behind Ten Brenke comes the UAE’s 2017 winner Khalid Al Qassimi in the Abu Dhabi Racing Peugeot 3008 DKR.
Completing a top six separated by only 16 mins 20 secs are Poland’s Dubai Baja champion Jakub Przygonski of in a Mini JCW Buggy, last year’s Czech winner Martin Prokop in a Ford Raptor RS Cross Country and Russia’s two-times Desert Challenge victor Vladimir Vasilyev in a BMW X3.
It was another particularly testing day for the bike and quad riders as 30km winds churned up the sand, making visibility difficult, and Spain’s Jose Cornejo on a Honda adapted best.
Not only winning the stage by 1 min 43 secs rom Spanish Honda team-mate Joan Barreda Bort, he covered it 5 mins 55 faster than Sam Sunderland to slash the 2017 Desert Challenge champion’s overall lead on a KTM to 51 seconds. The Argentinian Benavides brothers Luciano and Kevin, along with UAE-based South African Mark Ackerman complete the top six.
“We’ve had another day of classic desert rallying and with so many top riders and drivers close together the race for the cars and bikes titles is really wide open.” said Mohammed Ben Sulayem, President of the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE and FIA Vice President for Sport.
Taking place under the patronage of H.H. Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Ruler’s Representative in Al Dafrah Region, the event is supported Abu Dhabi Aviation, Abu Dhabi Police, ADNOC, Al Ain Water, Al Dhafra Region Ruler’s Representative Court, National Ambulance, Nissan, United Arab Emirates Armed Forces and Yas Marina Circuit.
After seeing his victory hopes die 24 hours earlier when he was stranded in the desert, Al Rajhi finished today’s stage to say: “It was a great day. A very good feeling to finish first after an unlucky day yesterday.”
Ten Brinke said: “It was a tough day for sure. The first 25km I was driving well next to Stephane then we got stuck and lost time there. Also we were trading places with Yazeed like cat and mouse in the stage. Unfortunately 50km from the finish we hit a jump and it broke my seat and maybe something else in the car, I don’t know. After this, it was a challenge to reach the finish.”
The spirit of the rally shone through again as Przygonski repaid the debt he owed to Prokop who had towed him out of the sand on the first leg.
Reaching the end of the stage with his right side door missing, Przygonski said: “We saw Prokop get stuck and helped pull him out. Then we saw he got stuck again and we tried to help but we would have lost too much time if we stayed. It was a difficult stage and our right door has come off which means a lot of sand inside. We were still happy to help Martin after yesterday.”
Prokop reflected: “The first half of the stage I was fast, just behind the lead car. Then we got stuck and the leaders helped pull us out. After this, the second half was really a disaster. We suffered from low pressure somewhere in the engine and had to restart the car.”
Reaching the end of the stage Cornejo said: “Again today it was tough windy conditions. This was whipping the sand up in the air making visibility low. In the last 30km I was riding in a group with Sam and Andy over the flat sections to the finish. This made the ride quicker, possibly making up some time for me.”
Short completed the stage to say: “Today was more difficult than yesterday with more drops in the dunes, I had to be careful and with the wind again there was a lot of sand in my goggles.”
Sunderland, the 2017 bikes champion, said: “There was quite a lot of wind which made it hard to concentrate. It was a very different stage to yesterday’s and I’m looking forward to another day of the desert challenge.”
Leading positions after Al Ain Water Stage 2 (provisional)
1. Stephane Peterhansel / Andrea Peterhansel (FRA / DEU) / MINI JCWorks Rally 7:16:46.0
2. Bernhard Ten Brinke / Tom Colsoul (NDL / BEL) / Toyota Hilux Overdrive 7:19.12.0
3. Khalid Al Qassimi / Xavier Panseri (ARE / FRA) / Peugeot 3008 DKR 7:19:44.0
4. Jakub Przygonski / Timo Gottschalk (POL / DEU) / MINI John Cooper Works Buggy 7:25:33.0
5. Martin Prokop / Viktor Chytka (CZE / CZE) / Ford Raptor RS Cross Country 7:27:05.0
6. Vladimir Vasilyev / Konstantin Zhiltsov (RUS / RUS) / BMW X3 7:32:58.0
7. Aron Domzala / Maciej Marton (POL / POL) / Toyota Hilux Overdrive 7:37:53.0
8. Casey Currie / Laurent Lichtleuchter (USA / FRA) / CAN AM Maverick X3 7:57:30.0
9. Reinaldo Varela / Gustavo Gugelmin (BRA / BRA) / CAN AM Maverick X3 7:57:39.0
10. Khalid Al Jafla / Andrei Rudnitski (ARE / BLR) / Chevrolet Silverado 13:16:05.0
1. Sam Sunderland (GBR) / KTM 450 Rally Factory / 1 6:59:57.0
2. Jose Cornejo (CHL) / Honda CRF 450 Rally / 1 7:00:48.0
3. Andrew Short (USA) / HUSQVARNA FR 450 / 1 7:04:09.0
4. Luciano Benavides (ARG) / KTM 450 Rally Factory / 1 7:06:39.0
5. Kevin Benavides (ARG) / Honda CRF 450 Rally / 1 7:20:17.0
6. Mark Ackerman (ZAF) / HUSQVARNA F 450 RR / 1 7:48:49.0
7. Ryan Blair (GBR) / HUSQVARNA F 450 RR / 1 7:49:00.0
8. Mohammed Al Balooshi (ARE) / KTM 450 Rally Replica / 1 7:59:02.0
9. Mohammed Meshari Jaffar (KWT) / KTM 450 Rally Replica / 1 8:08:34.0
10. David McBride (GBR) / KTM 450 Rally / 1 8:39:16.0
Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge powered by Nissan, remaining rally itinerary:
2 April: Nissan Stage 3 (297.97km) – starting 6.15am
3 April: ADNOC Stage 4 (286.10km) – starting 6.00am 4 April: Abu Dhabi Aviation Stage 5 (214.47km) – starting 6.25am