Australia’s Dakar winner and KTM factory rider Toby Price launched his bid for the 2016 FIM Cross-Country Rallies Championship title in Abu Dhabi this week by taking victory in the opening round, the Desert Challenge. Factory teammate Sam Sunderland finished second and Pablo Quintanilla was third overall.
Toby Price was fastest in Saturday’s prologue and won the first and the fifth stage. Both he and Sam Sunderland stayed in the top three throughout the five-stage event. Spain’s Laia Sanz, the third member of the factory team, finished in overall sixth. She was hampered in the last days riding with a badly blistered and very painful hand.
It was a week where the character of the rally was set by the desert landscape. Five days of riding on the dramatic yellow sand dunes where tracks from the starting riders were clearly visible, largely relieved competitors of many navigating duties, often an important and possibly decisive factor in rally raid. Because of this, the rally also developed into a battle of tactics where a stage winner was left with the task of opening the track, while riders behind could easily follow the tire tracks in the sand dunes.
While the British-born Sunderland is perhaps accustomed to the local conditions because he is based in Dubai, it was Price’s first foray into the soft sand of the Gulf State’s Liwa Desert, which proved very different to the style of desert racing he has mastered in Australia.
The final day was definitely the hardest fought and the end result was wide open and could have gone the way of any of the three leading riders.
“Today it was a race from start to finish and we were really pushing all the way to the finish. That’s what I enjoy most and I had to work for it. We were really on the gas. Now we just have to keep going this way,” Price commented after the finish.
It was an important result for both riders, but especially for Sunderland who was second in the world championship last season behind KTM factory rider Matthias Walkner, who is still recovering form an injury in the Dakar Rally in January. Sunderland broke his femur in the run-up to Dakar Rally and his return to successful racing in the Desert Challenge confirmed that he is again completely fit.
Sunderland agreed that the first 100km of the final day had been tough.
“But in the end it was 1-2 with Toby and me and everything went well, even though it was pretty tortuous on the last day. The team has been great all week and the bike has been awesome. So now we have to do it all again in the next round in Qatar,” Sunderland said, adding: “What was really important for me was that everything was fine with my injured leg and that we now have the first event in the bag.” The three KTM factory riders compete on the KTM 450 RALLY factory machine.
Rockstar Energy Husqvarna factory riders Pablo Quintanilla and Pela Renet finished third and fifth overall after the five days in the deep sand dunes of the Liwa Desert..
Quintanilla, a seasoned desert rider from Chile took the second stage win and was never out of the top three both in the individual results of prologue-plus-five stages, and in each day’s overall standings. At the finish he was just three minutes 23 off the pace of eventual winner Toby Price in an event that had quickly developed into a contest between three main protagonists – Price, Quintanilla and British rider Sam Sunderland, who took second place.
In fact, Quintanilla held the lead in the overall standings going into the final stage, but his two rivals were behind him and they could follow the deep tyre marks in the soft sand and exert pressure and speed from behind. But the final stage was fast and furious with all of three leaders chasing the win. Quintanilla pushed particularly hard over the first 100km and it was only after the refuelling stop that his two rivals were able to take the fight to the end.
Quintanilla said while he was happy with his podium he was at the same time a little disappointed not to have taken the win.
“Last year I made my debut in the World Championship in Abu Dhabi and I got my first podium. I was aiming to repeat it and I did, but I am not entirely happy because obviously I had the chance to win.”
Quintanilla, who finished third in the Dakar Rally in January, has his next chance in two week’s time in round two of the championship.
Renet, who was fourth across the line in the final stage comes to rally sport as an enduro world champion. He can be well satisfied to have wrapped up the first round of the season as a stage winner and a top five finisher. He made some small navigation errors in the first stage, but from then on recovered to improve every day and to underline that he plans to be a force to reckoned with in future rallies. Renet raced with the factory team in the 2016 Dakar Rally in January but had to withdraw some days into the competition because of injury.
As the fourth stage winner it was Renet’s job to open the track on the final day, a first for the French rider. “I opened a rally stage for the first time today and I’m happy that I finished the final stage in fourth place,” he commented. “With the fifth place in the overall classification of the Desert Challenge I leave the opening round of the world championship with a very good feeling!”
Team Coordinator Daniel Trauner: “We can be happy with both of our riders. Today Pablo really went for the win. He stayed out in front and on his own right up to the refuelling stop. He kept up a very fast pace and tried hard to stay in front of the other two. It was a real all-out race right to the end. We are also very pleased for Pela and this result gives him a lot of confidence for the next round in two week’s time.”
Helder Rodrigues finished the final stage in fifth, and carded top eight position on every stage of the rally, including a stage three win, but penalties handed to the Yamaha rider relegated him to 26th outright when the rally concluded.
Hélder Rodrigues, Yamalube Yamaha Official Rally Team rider
“We have just completed the first rally-raid of this season and it’s a great satisfaction to arrive at the finish line with my WR450F Rally in such a good shape. Today’s last stage was very fast and was good for learning more about dune-riding because of its alternating sandy routes and hard grounds. We crossed beautiful landscapes but also suffered a little bit from the heat. It was important for the team to participate in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge as we had the opportunity to re-start working on the bike’s development in such a peculiar landscape. It was also the season kick-off for me. We will move forward as the season goes along in order to be prepared for the 2017 Dakar Rally. I’m already focusing on the upcoming race in Qatar in ten days.”
José Leloir, Yamalube Yamaha Official Rally Team manager
“We are pleased to have successfully ended this first and very demanding race. It was difficult enough for a pre-dakar test, especially due to the heat and the swaying routes through dunes. We wanted to stay careful as a few riders fell off their bikes on some stages. It was a good trial run for the team; the mechanics did a great job all week long. We go back home with a stage win and that is very important as it kicks off the season very positively. We will keep it in mind, as we want to move forward to deliver more of these strong performances. We ran the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge with Hélder Rodrigues as our only official rider but we will move on to the Sealine Cross Country Rally in Qatar next week with junior rider Adrien Van Beveren joining the team, who took some rest after a busy but successful first part of the season.”
Riders now take a week’s break before heading for the Sealine Rally in nearby Qatar, a race that will be in very different conditions. It will take competitors almost entirely off piste and over hard stony ground where it will be necessary for them to be fast and alert, especially with their navigation skills.
Next Race: April 17-22, 2016 – Sealine Cross-Country Rally (QAT)
Results Stage 5 Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge 2016
1. Toby Price (AUS), KTM, 03:48:51, +00:00:01
2. Sam Sunderland (GBR), KTM, 02:50:26, +00:02:09
3. Pablo Quintanilla, Husqvarna, 02:54:25, +00:03:59
4. Pierre Alexandre Renet (FRA), Husqvarana, +03:00:10, +00:05:45
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