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Overdrive Racing’s trio of Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah, Yazeed Al-Rajhi and Sebastien Halpern endured mixed fortunes at the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, the second round of the new FIA World Rally-Raid Championship, with the front-running duo having to be content with bonus points for individual stage performances.

Al-Attiyah, co-driven by Frenchman Mathieu Baumel, arrived in the UAE with a one-point lead over WRC veteran Sébastien Loeb but a heavy landing damaged a lower suspension arm and a front wheel on the Qatari’s Toyota Hilux on the opening stage and the four-time winner had to play catch up over the next four days once time penalties were imposed.

Al-Attiyah managed to earn 20 points for four stage wins and problems for Loeb meant that he only dropped two points to the Frenchman in the UAE and now trails by a single point. Toyota Gazoo Racing leads the X-raid JCW Team by 33 points in the Manufacturers’ standings.

“When I crossed the finish line of the last stage, I immediately remembered what happened on the first stage,” said Al-Attiyah. “That’s a little bit of disappointment. But to come back strong and win the remaining four stages wasn’t easy and we did amazing job. Our car was working very well and this is testament for our teamwork.

“This was an amazing race and, as usual, we were really happy to compete and be part of the new World Rally-Raid Championship. We showed the speed and we have the confidence to push at the next race.”

A positive Covid-19 test meant that Al-Rajhi’s regular co-driver Michael Orr was forced to miss out on the Desert Challenge on this occasion and his place was taken by Germany’s Dirk von Zitzewitz. The Saudi held third overall early in the event but he too suffered technical issues and time penalties and reached the finish in 18th place with valuable bonus points for stage performances.

“We had a good final day finishing behind Nasser,” said Von Zitzewitz. “That was a nice ending to a difficult race for us. We were very unlucky on day three with our technical problems. Without that, of course, it could have been a lot better but I think some guys can tell the same story.”

Halpern teamed up with fellow Argentinean Bernardo Graue and switched to an Overdrive Racing Toyota Hilux for the Abu Dhabi event. He looked to be heading for a useful finish until technical issues intervened on the final stage and pushed him down to 21st overall.

Overdrive Racing also built four OT3 that were registered for the W2RC and entered by the Red Bull Off-Road Junior Team. Cristina Gutierrez and François Cazalet reached the finish in fourth overall and second in T3, with Seth Quintero and Dennis Zenz coming home in third place in the category for lightweight prototype machines.

Mitch Guthrie Junior and Ola Floene impressing on several stages before retiring after the fourth stage, while the Belgian duo of Guillaume de Mevius and Tom Colsoul retired after the third stage, despite setting the fastest time on the opening selective section.

Al-Attiyah’s challenge for a fourth win in Abu Dhabi suffered a setback from the start, when the Qatari suffered a damaged front right wheel and lower suspension arm close to the stage start and was forced to return to the start area to make emergency repairs. He suffered massive time penalties of 16 hours as a result and slipped to the foot of the rankings.

“Not the rally start we planned for,” said Baumel. “But this is motorsport. After this bad luck landing, our lower arm was bent and we were not able to continue. There are still four stages to get some small championship points.”

Al-Rajhi avoided any major issues to reach the finish of the opening 262km selective section in second place, 9min 30sec behind early leader and eventual winner Stéphane Peterhansel. Halpern came home in seventh place in the third of the Overdrive Toyotas.

The stage was a lot more difficult than we expected and it was very hot,” said Von Zitzewitz. “After the neutralisation, we found Sebastien Loeb was stopped and we took it easy to make it to the finish. Second in the standings and first in the World Championship.

De Mevius was the fastest driver in the T3 section, the Overdrive OT3 driver beating the series-leading Francisco Lopez by 4min 54sec. Gutierrez and Quintero came home in third and fifth places. Guthrie Jnr. had been the fastest driver through the first 40km but lost over an hour into the checkpoint at 196km and failed to finish the special.

De Mevius said: “The stage was good for us and we won it. It was a good come back for Tom (Colsoul) because we wasn’t at the Dakar, so it was good to have him back by my side. We did a good job. This place is beautiful with very nice big dunes and a lot of sand. It was a nice stage and the road book was good also.”

Al-Attiyah was repositioned in fifth place on the road for the start of the second 326km loop through the dunes around Hameem and he attacked from the outset to eventually win the stage by 5min 50sec. Al-Rajhi came home in third and maintained second overall behind Peterhansel.

Al-Attiyah said: “Now we will try and win every day to take maximum points like we did today. We did quite a good job, I am quite happy. We have to now work for the points. Today we won five and I hope to win five points tomorrow as well.

“It's a disappointment not to win the rally because it is my favourite rally. We need to accept what happened yesterday. This is a motorsport. Now we must try to push the limit of the car, like we did it today.”

Al-Attiyah picked up another five championship points for winning the third 255km stage, the Qatari finishing 5min 16sec ahead of Loeb, as Peterhansel came home in third to conserve his outright lead.

Baumel said: “The stage was a little bit faster than yesterday, some parts of dunes and less difficult. Nasser was pushing and we did a good stage. One more extra point than Sebastien Loeb. We’ll continue that way for the next two stages.”

Al-Rajhi was running as the fourth fastest driver for much of the stage until he stopped with technical issues for over 45 minutes after 206km. Unfortunately, the Saudi was not able to complete the stage and, like Al-Attiyah, he incurred hefty time penalties.

Quintero bounced back from axle issues earlier in the event to win the third stage in T3, the American youngster beating team-mate Gutierrez by 2min 49sec. The Spaniard duly closed to within 1min 12sec of the category-leading Lopez. De Mevius suffered further time losses in the third OT3 and retired from the event.

“The stage was difficult for us because we broke the front left drive shaft,” said Gutierrez. “Then I just tried to reach the finish line to keep the car safe as the rally is long and very hard.”

Al-Attiyah opened the road again on the fourth loop of 243km through the dunes and sandy wastelands of the Al-Dhafra region. He earned another five valuable points for setting a third successive fastest time, the Qatari beating Loeb by 3min 01sec. Al-Rajhi came home in third and Halpern was sixth of the T1 entrants.

Gutierrez dropped 7min 59sec to Lopez in the battle for T3 honous on a stage where Quintero stopped after 155km for around an hour. The American had been the quickest driver on the stage.

Al-Attiyah made it four stage wins in a row on the short 209km sprint through the desert on the return to Abu Dhabi. Al-Rajhi came home with the second fastest time but Halpern was not able to complete the stage.

In T3, Gutierrez claimed the fastest time to secure fourth overall and second in the category, with Quintero claiming third.

The FIA World Rally-Raid Championship resumes in Andalucia in June.


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