Cycling stars head for dramatic final day battle at Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge

Sam Sunderland in action during stage four of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge on Wednesday.

Gulf today, Staff reporter

The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge has produced plenty of end-of-day drama over the years, and another thrilling climax is assured as the rally returns from the spectacular dunes of Al Dhafra to the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

The bottom line after Wednesday’s 243km Abu Dhabi Aviation Stage 4 is that it will take a dramatic turnaround to prevent a seventh-car triumph for Stephane Peterhansel, but the battle for victory on two wheels remains wide open.

Peterhansel, in an Audi RS Q e-tron, increased his overall lead to 33 minutes 21 seconds over 2018 champion Czech Martin Prokop in a Ford Raptor and only needed to avoid disaster on the final day to become the most successful pilot. in the event’s 31-year history.

It’s a completely different story on two wheels, with the top four separated by just 2 minutes 34 seconds, and a succession of other top-tier factory team riders waiting to pounce after the team’s memorable opening win. stage today for Argentinian Luciano Benavides. He is ninth on a Husqvarna, 11 minutes off the pace, but was delighted after a brilliant race.

Sam Sunderland’s lead on his GasGas has been reduced by more than 4 minutes to just 23 seconds behind Chilean Pablo Quintanilla on a Honda, and Australian Toby Price is just 1:19 behind, ahead of American star Ricky Brabec on another Honda.

For a third day, defending champion Nasser Al Attiyah in a Toyota Hilux was by far the fastest driver on the stage, going 3 minutes 1 second faster than Sébastien Loeb’s Prodrive Hunter, his main rival in the fight for the rally-raid world championship. Title.

Problems in the first three days for Attiyah, Loeb, Poland’s Jakub Przygonski and Saudi Yazeed Al Rahji put the T1 quartet out of action this week, opening the door for one of the lightweight prototypes to a top three in the standings General in Abu Dhabi tomorrow.

Francisco Lopez held the provisional podium spot at the end of the stage in a Can-AM Maverick. The Chilean lost 30 minutes with a broken driveshaft the day before but now has a 9:33 advantage over Spaniard Cristina Gutierrez in an OT3 Overdrive.

Polish T4 leader Marek Goczal in a Can-AM Maverick sits fifth overall, while fellow countryman Przygonski rounds out the top six for the T1 contingent in his Mini John Cooper Works Buggy.

Meanwhile, there shouldn’t be a more emphatic winner in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge tomorrow than Emirati rider Abdulaziz Ahli, the reigning quad champion on a Yamaha Raptor who is 1h48min 32sec ahead of the Slovak Juraj Varga.

Peterhansel finished the stage saying: “Today was not easy for us but we did a good job to get here in good shape. Tomorrow we have to drive carefully and be safe because we want to win, so we will do our best. »

Prokop commented: “I tried to enjoy the stage and the dunes, that’s why we are here and taking part in this fantastic rally. Tomorrow, well the last leg is always with mixed feelings. I always love going to Abu Dhabi, but it’s a long stage so it’s not easy.

Abu Dhabi Aviation leg winner Attiyah said: “I’m quite happy with our performance and yes it was a good day for us. I don’t know the general classification. But I know that every point will help us for the championship.

Quintanilla, the 2018 Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge cycling champion, clearly had a second victory in mind at the finish when he said: “The wind and heat made it very difficult, and I rode alone for a much of the step. I tried to push, but it wasn’t easy on the soft sand. A key step today, there is only one left.

Luciano Benavides, delighted, declared: “I am really happy to have finally won the stage. I waited many years for this moment to win a stage. I enjoyed the day and the stage was quite nice.

“The performance of the bike was smooth. Racing in Abu Dhabi is really a challenge and I’m looking forward to tomorrow.

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