Nasser al Attiyah is on a mission to become the first Arab rider for 15 years to win the UAE Desert Challenge.
Attiyah on target for title
ABU DHABI // The Qatar driver Nasser al Attiyah, who four years ago missed out by one place on an Olympic clay pigeon medal, made a wonderful start to the UAE Desert Challenge in his quest to become the first Arab driver for 15 years to win the event.
Giving a competitive debut to the new BMW X3, the FIA Middle East rally champion dominated the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority Special Stage 1, taking a lead of more than 18 minutes from Russian Leonid Novitskyi in another BMW X3. Partnered by his Swedish co-driver Tina Thorner in a car built for the Dakar Rally in South America in January, Attiyah, who came fourth in the Athens Games clay pigeon shooting event, immediately underlined his intentions to score a double triumph in the UAE.
He is hoping to become the first Arab since fellow-Qatari Saeed al Hajri in 1993 to taste victory in the event, knowing that a win will install him as the overall drivers' champion in the FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies - the Desert Challenge is the final round - with four more days of the event remaining. Poland's Krzysztof Holowczyc, in a Nissan Navara, was almost 10 minutes further adrift in third, ahead of the UAE's Yahya Alheli and New Zealander Glen Reid, both driving Nissan Patrols.
Spain's Marc Coma is attempting to complete a hat-trick of successive bike victories in the Desert Challenge, but he was second best on the day to KTM team-mate Cyril Despres, of France, a four-times winner of the event, who took a 1min 30secs lead. The UAE-based James West, stepping up to one of the big bikes in his attempt to build on his fourth place last year on a 450cc machine, was third fastest ahead of the Spanish duo, Gerard Farres and Jordi Viladoms.
Reaching the finish of the 281-km Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority SS 1, Attiyah said: "We had a really steady drive through the soft sand and tried to do our very best in hot temperatures. We had a lot of new things in the car in preparation for Argentina so we are being careful because of that. "But with the weight in the middle of the car it went really well." Holowczyc admitted: "The tempo was hard to find on the dunes and perhaps we were extra cautious with the car, so we lost a bit of time. But the car is running OK."
Aiming for a second top-three finish in the event, Alheli said: "It was a good day, even though we lost 20 minutes due to a problem with the suspension. We were still able to pass quite a few cars." Bikes leader Despres said: "It was a nice ride. I managed to get past a lot of other riders. But coming from Europe it has been hard to adjust to the weather and I suffered from a lot of cramp in my arm, which is unusual for me. The first part was very dusty."
He now looks set for a fascinating tussle with Coma who commented: "The fist part of the stage was good and very fast. Having decided to start at 21st position it was difficult to pass some of the riders. In the final part I lost some time due to mechanical problems which we need to sort out. But overall it was a new route and I like new challenges." Provisional leading positions after Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority SS1:
Cars 1. Nasser Al Attiyah / Tina Thorner (QA /S) BMW X3 T1 2:29:29 2. Leonid Novitskyi / Oleg Tyupenkin (RUS / RUS) BMW X3 T1 2:47:40 3. Krzysztof Holowczyc / Jean-Marc Fortin (PL / B) Nissan Navara T1 2:57:30 4. Yahya Alhelei / Khalid Alkendi (UAE / UAE) Nissan Patrol T2 3:03:51 5. Glen Reid / Haydn Walker (UAE / UAE) Nissan Patrol T1 3:09:54 6. Jun Mitsuhashi / Akira Miura (J / J) Toyota/Land Cruiser T2 3:16:15
Bikes 1. Cyril Despres (F) KTM Rally Replica/690 2:51:43 2. Marc Coma (E) KTM Rally Replica/690 2:53:13 3. James West (GB) KTM 690/690 3:08:09 4. Gerard Farres (E) KTM/690 3:08:32 5. Jordi Viladoms (E) KTM Rally Replica/690 3:09:02 6. Francisco Lopez (RCH) KTM Rally Replica/690 3:09:28 7. Oscar Polli (I) KTM Rally Replica/690 3:13:07 8. Alain Duclos (F) KTM/690 3:13:44 9. Tim Trenker (D) KTM 0/660 3:14:16 10. Jakub Przygonski (PL) KTM Rally Replica/690 3:14:20