Abu Dhabi: Russian Vladimir Vasilyev cruised to a commanding cars victory in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge Powered by Nissan on Thursday, as Portugal’s Paulo Goncalves produced a brilliant surge on the final leg to snatch the bikes title from seven-time winner Marc Coma.
Partnered by Konstantin Zhilstov in a Mini, Vasilyev took the 244-km Abu Dhabi Aviation Special Stage 5 to win by an impressive 47 minutes, 55 seconds from Poland’s Adam Malysz and Rafal Marton in a Toyota Hilux.
In one of the most dramatic individual battles of the rally, Czech driver Miroslav Zapletal clung on to third place in his Hummer, edging out the UAE’s Yahya Al Helei by eight seconds after a valiant effort by the Emirati to snatch the last podium place in his Nissan Pick Up.
German driver Stephan Schott and Duchman Eric Van Loon, both driving Minis, completed the top six in the third round of the 2014 FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies for cars.
Matching the tussle between Zapletal and Al Helei was the one that saw reigning FIM world champion Goncalves wipe out a 1 minute 31 seconds overnight lead for this year’s Dakar Rally winner, Coma, to deny the Spaniard an eighth Desert Challenge crown and secure a first for himself.
At the end of a five-day passage through some of the most demanding desert terrain on earth, the Portuguese rider won the opening round of this year’s FIM Cross Country Rallies World Championship for bikes by 20 seconds.
Spain’s Joan Barreda Bort, winner of the previous two stages, took third place, with the UAE’s Mohammad Al Beloushi recording a highly credible sixth position overall, despite a frustrating last day when his bike stalled.
Poland’s Rafal Sonik captured the Desert Challenge quads title for the first time to add to his 2013 FIM world championship success.
“We have seen desert rallying at its best and have three very deserving new champions,” said Mohammad Bin Sulayem, president of the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE, the rally organisers, and FIA vice-president.
Becoming the second Russian driver to win the Desert Challenge after Leonid Novitskiy in 2010, Vasilyev reached the end of the Abu Dhabi Aviation stage to say: “I’m very happy. I’m sure when we enter the podium it will come home that I’ve won the Desert Challenge.
“For me, this is definitely the most difficult leg of the FIA Cross Country Rally series. On the last stage there weren’t as many dunes and we had to make our own tracks because we didn’t want to follow the bikes. The Desert Challenge is the most challenging experience in the FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies. It’s a very special feeling to win.”
A delighted Malysz completed the stage, and said: “This is my first World Cup podium, so I’m very happy today. I had a sore neck from yesterday, but my plan was just to finish with a good pace and tempo, not too fast but enough to finish strongly.
“It’s been great practice for me in the sand and the dunes and will see how many more starts we can manage for the rest of the series.
After adding to a long list of impressive finishes in the Desert Challenge alongside co-driver Khalid Al Kendi, Al Helei said: “It was a tight race between me and Zapletal for third. After 50km I caught up with him and took three minutes off him, and we were going head to head up to the second passage control when my engine started to overheat so I had to pull back.
“After that it stopped four times and eventually I lost too much time, but well done to him. He is a great driver. This is my 24th year at the Desert Challenge and I enjoy it every year, competing against my friends. It’s a great week and a world-class event that puts the UAE on the big stage.”
Goncalves, who edged out Coma to clinch last year’s FIM world title, said: “I feel really happy to have won and for the team who altogether made an extraordinary job in Abu Dhabi. We’ve had five days of racing and no problems, and it proves we are very strong and competitive. I’m very confident for the future. Today was a really fast stage. I knew I had to catch Marc, and the first 90km were very fast.”
Coma, who will be back next year to pursue a record eighth bikes title, said: “It was a very nice race. I love the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge. I tried to fight right till the end to catch Paulo, but well done to him. It was a great race till the end.”
Finishing with mixed emotions, Al Beloushi said: “I’m quite upset with today. We had a great four days but everyone has bad days and today it was a bad day for me. Unfortunately, it had to be the last day. My bike stalled just before refuel and I couldn’t get it started again. I fiddled around and eventually got going again, but obviously I lost a lot of time.
“But anyway the goal was to finish in the top ten and we did that so I’m very happy for that. It’s frustrating when the problem is out of your hands. I was riding great but my bike just let me down in the end.”
Sonik, who clinched victory in the quads category by 42 minutes 52 seconds from Russian rider Sergey Karyakin, said: “It’s been a good day and a good week for me. I decided at the beginning of the season to come to the Desert Challenge and this has been a great event for me.
“It’s my fifth time here, and I didn’t have a lot of luck in my earlier attempts, but now I’m very happy to win this time. I was very consistent this week and only lost one stage due to mechanical problems, so that’s easily fixed. The desert is great, absolutely great, now home.”
The 24th edition of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge was held under the patronage of Shaikh Hamdan Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Ruler’s Representative in the Western Region.
1. Vladimir Vasilyev / K. Zhilstov (RUS /RUS) MINI All 4 Racing T1 17:10.19
2. Adam Malysz / Rafal Marton (POL / POL) Toyota Hilux T1 17:58.14
3. Miroslav Zapletal / Maciej Marton (CZE / POL) Hummer H3 T1 18:29.58
4. Yahya Alhelei / Khalid Alkendi (ARE / ARE) Nissan Pick UP T1 18:30.06
5. Stephan Schott / A. Schulz (DEU / DEU) MINI All 4 Racing T1 18:43.56
6. Eric Van Loon / W. Rosegaar (NED / NED) MINI All 4 Racing T1 19:07.51
7. Marek Dabrowski / Jacek Czachor (POL / POL) Toyota Hilux T1.1 19:13.48
8. Bauyrzhan Issabayev / Vladimir Demyanenko (KAZ/ RUS) T1 19:39.08
9. Reinaldo Varela / Gustavo Gugelmin (BRA / BRA) Toyota Hilux T1.1 20:44.14
10. Aidyn Rakhimbayev / A.Nikolaev (KAZ / RUS) MINI All 4 Racing T1.2 21:05.42
1. Paulo Goncalves (POR) Honda 450 CRF Rally 16:57.47
2. Marc Coma (SPA) KTM 450 Rally Replica 16:58.07
3. Joan Barreda Bort (SPA) Honda 450 CRF Rally 17:06.31
4. Jordi Viladoms (SPA) KTM 450 Rally Replica 17:38.36
5. Miran Stanovnik (SLO) KTM 450 Rally Replica 18:37.11
6. Mohammed Al Balooshi (UAE) KTM 450 Rally Replica 18:57.53
7. Helder Rodrigues (POR) Honda CRF 450 19:00.16
8. Oliver Lloyd (GBR) Speedbrain 450 Rally 20:00.16
9. Jakub Piatek (POL) KTM 450 Rally Replica 20:00.48
10. Santosh CS (IND) KTM 450 Rally Replica 20:09.42