Frenchman Jean-Louis Schlesser, Spaniard Marc Coma and Pole Rafal Sonik claimed outright victories in their respective car, motorcycle and quad categories of the four-day 2013 Sealine Cross-Country Rally, which finished in southern Qatar on Friday.
The trio held on to their overnight advantages in very different circumstances to clinch the wins after a punishing all-desert route of over 1,500km had tested both man and machine to the limit. Schlesser, Chilean rider Francisco Lopez and Sonik were triumphant on the fourth and final stage.
Schlesser and his Russian co-driver Konstantin Zhiltsov started the final selective section with an advantage of 25min 46sec over the Polish driver Krzysztof Holowczyc and Schlesser surged into the lead of the FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies with his first win of the new season by the eventual margin of 31min 18sec.
“Yes, very happy, a nice but difficult race,” said Schlesser. “It was not so easy and I catch my finger in the steering wheel in a hole today, but the win has put us in a good position.”
Holowczyc reached the finish in second overall with his Mini All4 Racing and the Overdrive Racing Toyota Hiluxes of Venezuelan Nunzio Coffaro and Kazakh Aidyn Rakhimbayev were third and fourth.
“Second place is the first loser,” reflected Holowczyc. “This race was ideal for the Buggies, fast, open and bumpy. With the new regulations, we don’t have the power and have to rely on reliability. We see with Nasser, like on the Dakar, he was fast but the car was not reliable. If the rules are not changed the future is for the Buggy!”
Coma needed a very different strategy to claim his second successive victory in the motorcycle category. The factory KTM rider started the final stage with a 2min 04sec advantage over Portugal’s Paulo Gonçalves and knew full well that the Speedbrain team rider would be playing catch up over the early kilometres.
But the Portuguese lost his way a little early on and Coma was able to extend his lead into the passage control. Thereafter, there had been some overnight rain and the Spaniard was a little more cautious to ensure that he kept to the correct route. Gonçalves began to close and Coma saw his rival behind for the first time after around 190km.
The much-vaunted grandstand finish ensued over the closing kilometres and the pair crossed the finish line inseparable, with Gonçalves gaining two minutes but Coma winning the race by just four seconds.
“Phew, that was tough. A very tough race, very difficult in all areas, but I am very happy,” said Coma. “The long distance, the navigation, the weather – this race has really gone to a high level. I lost some time in some loose sand after the passage control, but I saw Paulo after about 190km and it was exciting all the way to the finish.”
“I gave it a good try and I am happy with second position,” said the Portuguese runner-up. “It was a really close few days and a hard race with four long days. I lost my way a little by not looking at the road book at the start but I was able to come back strong. In Abu Dhabi, the gap to Marc was 32 and here it was just four seconds.”
Pole Jakub Przygonski finished third and stage winner Lopez was fourth.
Sonik began the final stage with a massive lead of 1hr 33min 49sec over the UAE’s Obaid Al-Kitbe in the quad class. Last year’s champion made no mistake for the second year running and the quickest time ensured that he maintained his 100% success rate in Qatar. Al-Kitbe claimed the runner-up spot and local rider Mohammed Abu Issa was third.
“This rally was much more difficult that any of us expected,” said Sonik. “It was physically demanding, but also we had the strong winds, the rocks and the navigation. I am so happy to finish the last stage with no mistakes and make sure I get the win. After each of the first three days we thought that it would get easier, but it did not. This rally is a fantastic lesson to anyone who wants to learn about cross-country rallies!”
Day 4 – as it happened
Instead of tackling the full 275.50km selective section used by the cars, bike and quad riders crossed a shorter 238.49km stage, after taking a different course from PC1 to rejoin the main route at the second passage control for the cars.
The big question was whether Gonçalves could catch Coma and manage to squeeze into at least a four-second lead on the drag race to the stage finish. He began the stage two minutes behind the Spaniard on the road and needed to beat the FIM Cross-Country Rallies World Cup leader by 65 seconds to win the event.
But Coma has seen this tense situation before and the Spaniard attacked hard from the start to maintain the gap between the two. He reached PC1, after 112.52km, with his overall lead increased by a further 2min 08sec. Nearly half the stage was completed and the Portuguese had not been able to make in-roads into Coma’s lead at all. He was also caught by Przygonski.
Coma stayed hard on the gas through the next crucial kilometres, but Gonçalves, Prygonski and Lopez grouped closer together and the Speedbrain rider managed to close in on the leader en route to the Inland Sea. The Portuguese was putting on a late charge as the media waited anxiously at the finish line to see if it would indeed be a ‘motocross-style’ shoot-out to decide the outcome.
The duo did not disappoint and they crossed the finishing line together. Gonçalves had managed to take exactly two minutes from the Spaniard, but those four vital seconds were a bridge too far and Coma held on to take the narrowest of victories in thrilling circumstances.
Sonik had been the quickest quad rider to PC1 from Al-Kitbe and Pablo Copetti and the Pole held on to take a comfortable win in the category. Al-Kitbe and Qatar’s Mohammed Abu Issa were third.
Schlesser settled cosily into third position on the stage behind Holowczyc and Rakhimbayev and just needed to stay out of trouble to conserve his 25min 46sec lead and seal a maiden Sealine win. Faisal Al-Attiya started from third position on the road but the Qatari’s topsy-turvy rally ended 33km into the stage when he broke a brake disc and retired.
Schlesser reached PC1 with a virtual stage lead of 34 seconds over Holowczyc and extended that advantage to 56 seconds at PC2, as he closed in on the Sealine title. The Frenchman shadowed the Pole to the finish to seal victory by the margin of 31min 18sec and claim the stage win into the bargain.
Russian Alexander Barenenko almost lost his chance of claiming the T2 category win on the final stage. Peruvian Raul Orlandini claimed the stage win, but the Russian finished high enough to confirm the class victory in his Toyota and take sixth in the overall standings.
Overall positions after SS4 (unofficial @ 11.20hrs):
1. Jean-Louis Schlesser (FRA)/Konstantin Zhiltstov (RUS) Schlesser Original 16hr 11min 33sec
2. Krzysztof Holowczyc (POL)/Andreas Schulz (DEU) Mini All4 Racing 16hr 42min 51sec
3. Nunzio Coffaro (VEN)/Daniel Meneses (VEN) Toyota Hilux 17hr 30min 45sec
4. Aidyn Rakhimbayev (KAZ)/Vladimir Demiyanenko (RUS) Toyota Hilux 17hr 47min 15sec
5. Miroslav Zapletal (CZE)/Maciej Marton (POL) Hummer H3 Evo 18hr 09min 22sec
1. Marc Coma (ESP) KTM 450 Rally Replica 17hr 09min 57sec
2. Paulo Gonçalves (PRT) Speedbrain 450 Rally 17hr 10min 01sec
3. Jakub Przygonski (POL) KTM 450 Rally Replica 17hr 13min 13sec
4. Francesco Lopez (CHL) KTM 450 Rally Replica 17hr 17min 42sec
5. Juan Carlos Salvatierra (BOL) Honda CRE F 500 X 18hr 47min 02sec
6. Quinn Cody (USA) Speedbrain 450 Rally 19hr 35min 31sec
1. Rafal Sonik (POL) Honda TRX 700 21hr 28min 41sec
2. Obaid Al-Kitbe (ARE) Honda TRX 700 23hr 31min 56sec
3. Mohammed Abu Issa (QAT) Yamaha Raptor 700 24hr 50min 11sec
4. Pablo Copetti (ARG) Yamaha Raptor 700 24hr 55min 03sec
5. Mohammed Al-Shamsi (ARE) Honda TRX 700 25hr 52min 13sec