Abu Dhabi, UAE: The only certainties before the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge reaches its conclusion are that victory does not come easy, and this is still the case after the 30th edition's third leg.
The drivers' title remains in the grasp of Nasser Al Attiyah who completed a hat-trick of fastest stage times with Mathieu Baumel in a Toyota Hilux, stretching his overall lead to 11 mins 18 secs.
With two days and 414km of desert stages remaining, however, the Qatari cannot afford to lose pace or concentration, even though he also appears to be winning the mental battle with his closest challenger, Poland's Jakub Przygonski.
“I'm quite happy with today – good navigation and great terrain which made it like surfing for much of the time,” said the Qatari on completing the 293km Abu Dhabi Sports Council Stage 3.“Today we pushed a little more, each day we do a little more. All is going well.”
Partnered by Timo Gottschalk in a Mini John Cooper Works Buggy, Przygonski declared:“Today wasn't a very good day for us because we couldn't get a very good grip, so it's good that we finished the stage. Sometimes it happens, but tomorrow is another day. Let's see.”
Argentine Lucio Alvarez held on to third place in his Toyota Hilux Overdrive, but a broken drive shaft dropped Saudi Arabia's Yazeed Al Rajhi with Britain's Michael Orr to seventh in their Toyota.
Finishing the day lying fifth overall, Poland's Marek Goczal and Lukasz Laskawiec in a CAN-AM Maverick now top the FIA T4 category, while Saudi Arabia's Saleh Alsaif with Russian co-driver Egor Okhotikov lead T3 in another CAN-AM Maverick.
Young Emirati driver Mansour Al Helei lies third in F4 and eighth overall with Abdulla Dakhan in another CAN-AM Maverick. The Czech Republic's Martin Prokop and Viktor Chytka in a Ford Raptor RS Cross Country continue to dominate the class for 2022 specification cars.
“The first two days have been demanding, and fully lived up to expectations,” said Mohammed Ben Sulayem, President of the Emirates Motorsports Organization (EMSO) and FIA Vice President for Sport.“We have two more testing legs to go, and no-one can take anything for granted.”
There have been some exhilarating battles involving the world's top riders over the years in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, and another one is building this time, with a different stage winner on each of the first three legs. Two-times Australian off-road champion Daniel Sanders was fastest today, by 2 mins 44 secs from new FIM cross country rallies world champion Matthias Walkner, whose overall lead was slashed to 57.6 secs as a result.
Saunders started riding at the age of eight on the family apple farm, and the GasGas Factory Racing team picked a good one when they signed him up last year. This year's Dakar was only his second rally start, and he produced a stunning performance with fourth position.
'I was in a really good rhythm this morning and I caught the guys up front before the refuelling,” said Saunders.“The bike felt good. I did not make any navigation mistakes. We rode together but did not push too much away from each other.”
The rigours of a long season may be catching up with Walkner, who will need to muster all his strength and focus to steer his KTM to a maiden Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge title.“It was another nice day in the desert – everything went well,” he said.“The navigation was good. I'm starting to get a bit tired, but it's just two more days to go. Yes, I'm happy with everything so far.”
Frenchman Adrien Van Beveren on a Yamaha lies third overall, 5mins 39 secs off the lead, with Emirati Sultan Al Balooshi holding eighth place on a KTM and Dubai-based veteran British rider Dave McBride now in the top ten.
Over the last 30 years, the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge has often shone the light on emerging talent, and Konrad Dabrowski, who holds ninth place, is clearly one to watch. While Dabrowski needs only to reach the finish to be crowned FIM junior world champion, the rising star from Poland seems destined for greater things.
The son of three-time offroad world champion Marek Dabrowski started riding at the age of four, competing in moto cross for most of his teenage years and making his cross country rally debut in Morocco in 2019, just two days after getting his driving licence.
Since then, mature displays to finish well in the 2020 Africa Eco Race and this year's Dakar Rally suggest he could be heading for a place among the sport's elite riders.
The Abu Dhabi Sports Council stage tested the most resilient desert rally competitors to the limit, rewarding those prepared to attack the trail of demanding dunes and sharp slipfaces, closing with a 10km roller coaster ride of climbs and descents.
In the other FIM categories, South African Michael Docherty leads by more than an hour in Rally2, while Argentina's Manuel Andujar has a similar advantage over the UAE's Abdulaziz Ahli in the quads.
Taking place under the patronage of HH Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Ruler's Representative in Al Dhafrah Region, the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge is supported by the Ruler's Representative Court Al Dhafrah Region, UAE Armed Forces, the Abu Dhabi Sports Council, ADNOC Distribution, Yas Marina Circuit, Yas Island, Abu Dhabi Aviation, National Ambulance, Al-Futtaim Toyota, Abu Dhabi Police, Abu Dhabi Municipality, Al Dhafrah Region Municipality, Al-Ain Water and Tadweer.
Leading positions after Abu Dhabi Sports Council Stage 3 (provisional)
1. Nasser Al Attiyah / Mathieu Baumel (QAT/ AND) / Toyota Hilux 11:52:52.0
2. Jakub Przygonski / Timo Gottschalk (POL / DEU) / Mini John Cooper Works Buggy 12:04:10.0
3. Lucio Alvarez / Armand Monleon (ARG / SPA) / Toyota Hilux Overdrive 12:14:25.0
4. Denis Krotov / Konstantin Zhiltsov (RUS / RUS) / Mini John Cooper Works Bugg 12:57:24.0
5. Marek Goczal / Lukasz LASKAWIEC (POL / POL) / BRP CAN-AM Maverick 12:58:25.0
6. Austin Jones / Gustavo Gugelmin (USA / BRA) / BRP CAN-AM Maverick 13:02:01.0
7. Yazeed Al Rajhi/ Michael Orr (SAU / GBR) / Toyota Hilux Overdrive 13:02:48.0
8. Mansour Al Helei / Abdulla Dakhan (ARE / ARE) / BRP CAN-AM Maverick 13:09:45.0
9. Sebastian Halpern / Bernardo Graue (ARG / ARG) / Mini John Cooper Works Buggy 13:12:10.0
10. Kees Koolen / Mirjam Pol (NLD / NLD) / BRP CAN-AM Maverick 13:17:33.0
1. Matthias Walkner (AUT) / KTM 450 Rally Factory Replica / 1 10:54:24.4
2. Daniel Sanders (AUS) / GASGAS 450 Rally Factory Replica / 1 10:55:22.0
3. Adrien Van Beveren (FRA) / Yamaha WR450 F01 Rally / 1 11:00:04.2
4. Andrew Short (USA) / Yamaha WR450 F01 Rally / 1 12:18:43.4
5. Joaquim Rodrigues (PRT) / Hero 450 Rally / 1 12:20:53.0
6. Sebastian Buhler (DEU) / Hero 450 Rally / 1 12:33:44.0
7. Aaron Mare (ZAF) / KTM 450 Rally / 1 13:00:06.0
8. Sultan Al Balooshi (UAE) / KTM 450 Rally Replica / 1 13:57:20.0
9. Konrad Dabrowski (POL) / KTM 450 Rally Replica / 1 14:03:01.8
10. David McBride (GBR) / Husqvarna 450 Rally / 1 14:12:32.0
Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge rally schedule
10 Nov Stage 4 Abu Dhabi Aviation – 251.98km
11 Nov Stage 5 Yas Marina Circuit – 162.94km