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ABU DHABI (UAE): The South Racing Can-Am Team secured outright victories in both the FIA T3 and T4 categories at the five-day Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, round two of the FIA World Rally-Raid Championship (W2RC).

Chilean driver Francisco ‘Chaleco’ Lopez followed on from his superb win at the Dakar Rally in January to repeat the success in the towering sand dunes and punishing heat of the UAE, the Can-Am driver and co-driver Paulo Ceci finishing in a stunning third overall and first of the crews registered for the new W2RC series. Lopez duly extended his lead in the W2RC T3 standings to 25 points and showed that the T3 Can-Am is now a match for the more powerful T1+ vehicles on select cross-country rallies.

“We are happy to win this race,” said Lopez. “These five days were good training. It was a good fight with Cristina (Gutierrez), she is a good racer. There was a lot of pressure on us for the overall standings. But my co-driver, Paolo Ceci, did a good job like always. This rally is very difficult every time. We are indeed very happy to come here as winners of the last Dakar. And now, we have managed to keep this momentum going. For me, it is important to continue winning, not just here but in the next race as well. Our team has done a very good job with the car and the results are showing. Participating and winning is important for me. I have got the experience now, and I feel it is getting easier for me to win.”

Poland’s Marek Goczal and Lukasz Laskawiec held off a fierce challenge from the driver’s brother Michal and Lithuanian team-mate Rokas Baciuska to top the standings in the T4 category in a Can-Am run by South Racing under the Cobant Energylandia Rally Team banner. Goczal reached the finish 22min 18sec ahead of Baciuska and his Spanish co-driver Oriol Mena after his brother dropped time on the last special and slipped to fourth.

Behind Lopez, the South Racing Can-Am Team ran five more cars in the FIA T3 section and six in T4. Zimbabwe’s Conrad Rautenbach teamed up with Dutchman Wouter Rosegaar to finish fourth in T3 and the all-female crew of Germany’s Annett Fischer and Sweden’s Annie Seel were fifth.

Seel raced at the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge on a motorcycle in 2000 but this was her first time as a co-driver. She suffered motion sickness in the intense heat of the dunes but was able to guide Fisher to an excellent finish.

South Racing Middle East’s Thomas Bell and his Argentinean co-driver Bruno Jacomy were classified in sixth place and moved up to fourth in the overall series rankings. The all-Argentinean crew of Diego Martinez and Santiago Hansen crashed two kilometres into the final stage and were classified in eighth.

Massive time penalties on the first stage spoiled Hernan Garces’s chances of a top result, but the Chilean and his fellow countryman Juan Pablo Latrach finished ninth.

Behind the Goczal brothers and Baciuska in T4, the Dakar-winning Austin Jones and his Brazilian navigator Gustavo Gugelmin overcame first day troubles to win two stages and finish fifth in T4. Those vital points enabled the American to maintain a one-point lead over Marek Goczal in the W2RC T4 standings.

“It was one hell of a race this year, that’s for sure,” said Jones. “It was hard with all the stuff we managed to fight through. We had a big penalty for not finishing day one and that took us out of the race. We knew we were out of contention for the win but we just kept on going, fighting every day to get points for the championship, We won the last stage and we won on three, so two stages wins, one second and one third. It was a fun race.”

Chile’s Lucas Del Rio and Juan Quintanilla suffered hefty time penalties on the first stage and recovered to finish sixth in T4.

South Africa’s Geoff Minnit and Gerard Snyman were also badly delayed on the opening section and returned to Abu Dhabi in seventh. “This was our first time at this remarkable race,” said the South African. “The dunes were enormous. But we had so much fun. The most difficult day was day two when we crashed. But this is part of learning the dunes and desert. We took wisdom from it.

South Racing Can-Am Team’s Scott Abraham said: “Another Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge passes, this one less than six months after the last one. This was a great result for the team. It was a convincing victory for Chaleco Lopez in the T3 category and Paulo Ceci. They showed, once again, that the Can-Am is the class of the field after the Dakar victory. Marek Goczal and Lukasz Laskawiec managed to do it again after the win in Hail last year. They managed their second cross-country championship victory after a strong showing on Dakar for the team. It was a race of ups and downs but, all in all, a strong result. With the postponement of Kazakhstan, we are looking forward to a small gap before the next race in the calendar in Andalucia in June.”

As it happened

T3 series leader Lopez shadowed Guillaume De Mevius to the finish of the opening stage of 262km to trail the Belgian by 4min 54sec. Rautenbach, Fischer and Martinez came home in fourth, seventh and eighth. Bell recovered well from a drive shaft breakage to reach the finish in ninth, but Garces suffered technical issues and incurred massive time penalties.

Jones arrived in Abu Dhabi leading the T4 category after the Dakar, but he suffered technical issues on the opener and was not able to finish the stage into Qasr Al-Sarab. The American said: “We had a little bit of electrical issue. We were going down the road, everything was good and the car came to a stop. We changed everything we could and we spent time in the desert and then we came back to the bivouac. Now we’ll try to score some points and have fun in Abu Dhabi. It sucks, but that’s racing.”

Marek Goczal claimed the stage win from Baciuska and his brother Michal Goczal. Del Rio and Minnitt failed to finish the stage.

Lopez was again quickest on the second section of 316km through the Liwa dunes and extended his T3 lead over Gutierrez to 21min 01sec. Garces, Rautenbach, Fischer and Bell came home in fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh, despite the punishing heat in the desert.

In T4, Marek Goczal claimed the stage win and increased his advantage over Baciuska to 9min 40sec and to 32min 20sec over his brother Michal, who held third. Jones and Del Rio were fifth and sixth and Minnit was running in eighth position.

Lopez ceded 23 minutes to Seth Quintero on the third loop stage of 255km and saw his lead over Gutierrez whittled down to just 1min 12sec. “The third stage was very difficult,” admitted Lopez. “On the first kilometres I broke the front of the car and lost 20 minutes. We don’t have much time so we need to go through the last two stages without problems.”

Garces finished the day’s special with the third fastest time but first day woes had ruined the Chilean’s chances of taking a top result. Rautenbach, Fischer and Bell held fourth, fifth and sixth overall.

Jones pipped Michal Goczal to the stage win in T4 by just 10 seconds, although Marek Goczal retained a lead of 21min 36sec over his brother to take into the fourth day. Baciuska slipped to third in the T4 rankings after drive shaft and rear suspension arm breakages.

Lopez increased his T3 lead to 9min 33sec with the quickest time on the 243km penultimate loop through the dunes around Hameem and Liwa. Garces, Rautenbach and Bell came home third, fourth and fifth on the day.

Marek and Michal Goczal again controlled proceedings in T4, with Marek winning the stage by just 39 seconds from his brother to extend his advantage to 22min 21sec over Baciuska. Jones came home with the third quickest time.

There were no late dramas for either Lopez or Marek Goczal on the short final selective section and they duly secured wins in T3 and T4. Marek Goczal stopped for a long time with technical issues and slipped to fourth, but all the South Racing Can-Ams safely made it to the finish at Yas Marina, near Abu Dhabi.


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