x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Four wheels better than two for Frenchman at Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge

Stephane Peterhansel says that not being able to share the experiences – good and bad – with a co-driver prompted him to switch from a successful career on motorbikes to cars.

The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge draws to a close later today where competitors will head to Yas Marina Circuit for the finish and podium celebrations. Courtesy Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge
The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge draws to a close later today where competitors will head to Yas Marina Circuit for the finish and podium celebrations. Courtesy Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge

ABU DHABI // Boredom and loneliness are an unlikely reason for giving up something when you are at the top of your game, but that is exactly what Stephane Peterhansel did.

The Frenchman was a dominant force in endurance motorcycling in the 1990s and picked up a number of prestigious titles, including winning the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge twice in 1996 and 1997 as well as the Dakar Rally six times and becoming the World Enduro champion on two occasions.

But he decided to change from two wheels to four soon after the last of those triumphs and he has proved as adept behind the wheel, winning the Desert Challenge four more times in 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2007, as well as the Dakar twice more.

The 45 year old is showing again this week his skills behind the wheel as he leads the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge in his X-Raid Mini going into today's final leg.

But what prompted him to ditch two wheels in favour of four?

The Monaco-based competitor said: "I enjoyed racing bikes for sure, but after a while I got bored as it is just you on your own out there racing, and I had no one to share the moments with, be they good or bad.

"I switched to cars for a new challenge and I have enjoyed it ever since."

Unsurprisingly, given the array of titles that he has picked up in the UAE desert, the Abu Dhabi event ranks among Peterhansel's favoured events in the world of endurance rallying.

"I first did Abu Dhabi in the mid-90s and I have always enjoyed coming back," he said.

"It is a challenging event and I love racing in the sand as it is always a challenge, whether it be on the bike or in the car.

"It is always a well-organised event and they keep making changes to it that keep it interesting and make it a genuine test for the drivers."

Competing on tarmac and gravel are the other main surfaces for competing in rallies, but sand is Peterhansel's favourite for driving on, mainly because of the work that has to go into getting the car set-up perfectly to tackle it.

"Racing in the desert is very different but it is also very rewarding," he said. "It is a very difficult style of driving as you have to have a very different set-up to what you would usually have, and you need to be strong, but drive a smooth line.

"The car needs to have a very stiff set-up to be able to cope with the dunes and going through the sand. It is not easy, but then that is the point of competing."

Despite driving a new car with very little testing mileage, Peterhansel, with his co-driver Jean-Paul Cottret, have been battling at the front of the field throughout the event.

After losing the lead to Leonid Novitskiy's BMW X3 on Tuesday after becoming stuck in deep sand, it all came good for Peterhansel yesterday on Leg Four as he moved back to the top of the standings with a superb drive.

Barring a mechanical disaster he should claim his fifth title later today as he holds a lead of 14 minutes 19 seconds over his Russian rival.

Things are a little tighter in the bike competition.

Marc Coma, who has led the event throughout, will be confident of winning the event for a third successive year, and a fifth in all, but any problems today will be pounced upon by Helder Rodrigues, who is only 3mins 14secs behind.

Jakub Przygonski is in third place in the standings.

Today's action sees the final 294-kilometre stage begin at 7am, with the drivers and riders on completion of the stage heading to Yas Marina Circuit for the finish and podium celebrations at the rally headquarters.