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Dakar heavyweights flex their muscles at Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge

The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge witnessed a gang of multiple Dakar Rally winners dominate the dunes and cruise towards triumph. Five desert stages, measuring a combined 1,500 kilometres, pushed a convoy including cars, bikes and side-by-side vehicles to the limit. So tough were the conditions that there were plenty of running repairs made during the rally across all categories. There was history made at the second stop of the 2022 World Rally-Raid Championship by serial Dakar winner Stéphane Peterhansel (FRA). The Frenchman became the first-ever driver to win a cross-country rally-raid in a T1-E category car, a recently created class aimed at promoting sustainable energies in the sport. Peterhansel with co-driver Edouard Boulanger (FRA) kept their Audi RS Q e-tron and its electrified drivetrain on the pace throughout while their rivals dropped away. “To win a cross-country rally-raid with an electric car shows how far we have come in a short space of time. This is a new generation of car and a new page of the book of rally-raid.” – Stéphane Peterhansel Mechanical issues on stage one had off-road legend Sébastien Loeb (FRA) fighting an uphill battle on the remaining four stages. The nine-time WRC winner stuck to his task and recorded four consecutive podium finishes in his BRX Hunter alongside navigator Fabian Lurquin (BEL). Loeb eventually finished the rally in fourth place overall, one place behind the MINI JCW Buggy crew of Kuba Przygonski (POL)/Timo Gottschalk (GER). Loeb’s final points tally puts him in the lead of the World Rally-Raid Championship. “From the second stage onwards the focus was on strong stage results and we were able to do four good stages. We have scored some points for the championship, but not as many as we would have liked.” – Sébastien Loeb Also running into problems on Stage One was reigning Dakar champion Nasser Al-Attiyah (QAT). After a heavy impact in the dunes, Al-Attiyah and co-driver Mathieu Baumel (FRA) were unable to complete the opening stage in their Toyota Hilux. However, they were back in the race the following day and went on to win all four remaining stages. “After Stage One we came back very strong and we won all the four remaining stages. That will give us 20 championship points. Despite that I’m still a little disappointed, but these things can happen when you race.” – Nasser Al-Attiyah Getting the better of the magical Rub’ al Khali (Empty Quarter desert) in the bike race was Sam Sunderland (GBR). The new year is off to the best possible start for the GasGas Factory rider as he extended his World Rally-Raid Championship by adding another victory to his 2022 Dakar crown. “It feels great to get another win and extend my lead in the championship. It also feels good to be able to reward the team like this because they have all worked so hard all week, and it’s results like this that makes it all worth it.” – Sam Sunderland There were also plenty of championship points picked up by the Red Bull KTM Factory Racing squad competing in Abu Dhabi. Toby Price (AUS) and Matthias Walkner (AUT) finished the rally in fourth and fifth place overall. Kevin Benavides (ARG) ended 13th overall after a technical issue slowed him down on Stage Four. “It always feels good to complete a race and I managed to do a good job with my navigation all the way through, as well as avoiding any big crashes, so physically I feel good.” – Kevin Benavides It was another classy performance by Chaleco López (CHL) in the T3 lightweight vehicles class. López extended his World Rally-Raid Championship lead with another victory to add to his Dakar win earlier this year. The South Racing Can-Am driver raced alongside co-driver Paolo Ceci (ITA) in Abu Dhabi. “I’m really happy to finish this super tough rally with a winning result. A result like this gives us great confidence for all the hard work to be done this year.” – Chaleco López Pushing López all the way through the desert were Cristina Gutiérrez (ESP) and co-driver François Cazalet (FRA), winners of last year’s T3 World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies. An overall runners-up result plus podium finishes on every stage – including driving her OT3 to a win on the final day – keep Gutiérrez in second place in the world championship. Gutiérrez even joined López in running up front with the leading cars and clinching overall points from the T1 machines. “It was not an easy final stage for us because we did everything we could to push and put some pressure on Chaleco. At the finish we are still in second place. Overall it was a nice rally for us and we kept ourselves going in the championship.” – Cristina Gutiérrez Gutiérrez’s Red Bull Off-Road Junior Team-mate Seth Quintero (USA) picked up his first-ever World Rally-Raid Championship overall podium result. The teenage American and his co-driver Dennis Zenz (GER) fought back from a tough opening at the rally to put more points on the board and maintain third place in the championship. “We had a lot of ups and downs, but it was a great learning curve. We got to come away with a third place finish in the T3 category and a stage win so we made up some great points in the championship.” – Seth Quintero There were early retirements for the two other Off-Road Junior Team crews of Guillaume de Mevius (BEL)/Tom Colsoul (BEL) and Mitch Guthrie Jr. (USA)/Ola Fløene (NOR). The duos will be working on the positives ahead of the team’s next outing, especially the stage win for De Mevius on the opening day of the rally. The Red Bull Desert Wings squad will next be in World Rally-Raid Championship action at the Andalusia Rally in June.

World Rally-Raid Championship Standings CAR RACE TOP 3 1. S. LOEB (FRA) BRX 112 2. N. AL-ATTIYAH (QAT) TOYOTA 111 BIKE RACE TOP 3 1. S. SUNDERLAND (GBR) GAS GAS 63 2. P. QUINTANILLA (CHL) HONDA 46 3. M. WALKNER (AUT) KTM 35 LIGHTWEIGHT PROTOTYPE (T3) TOP 3 1. F. LOPEZ CONTARDO (CHL) CAN-AM 141 2. C. GUTIERREZ (ESP) OT3 116 3. S. QUINTERO (USA) OT3 97