Dakar Rally legend Stéphane Peterhansel claimed a landmark first-ever rally raid victory for Audi on the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, the second round of the World Rally Raid Championship season.
Some 20 years after his first win on the event, Peterhansel becomes the most successful driver on the event with his seventh triumph, having been tied with double Dakar winner Jean-Louis Schlesser before this year’s rally.
With trusted navigator Edouard Boulanger by his side, Peterhansel came home just under half an hour clear of occasional WRC2 competitor Martin Prokop, who claimed a well-deserved podium in his Ford Raptor RS T1+.
Ostensibly a test for the Q Motorsport-run operation, Audi was the car to beat from the start following trouble for Toyota’s Nasser Al-Attiyah, leading every day en route to an emotional maiden triumph for team principal Sven Quandt.
“Once again we have learned a lot in this young project,” said Quandt. “On the one hand, it was a test for us, but on the other hand it was also about sporting goals. The first victory is of course something very special.”
The best of the registered W2RC entries was X-raid Mini’s Kuba Przygónski in third, ahead of title rivals Sébastien Loeb and Nasser Al-Attiyah.
Al-Attiyah, who came into the weekend with a one-point championship margin over Bahrain Raid Xtreme’s Loeb, won the most stages with four but saw his victory hopes dashed on the opening stage with mechanical dramas.
The Toyota Hilux driver, alongside navigator Mathieu Baumel, damaged his front right wheel following a heavy landing.
Al-Attiyah got the car to the end of the stage, but the lengthy repair job dropped him nearly 20 hours off the pace of the leading runners.
With five points available for winning a stage, Al-Attiyah hit back in fine form and took the remaining four specials to limit the damage to Loeb, who finished one place ahead of the Qatari in the world championship standings. He and Baumel are now just one point behind Loeb and Fabian Lurquin heading into round three in Kazakhstan next month.
Loeb also hit strife early in the rally as a broken driveshaft halted his Prodrive-run Hunter for almost 90 minutes on the opening test. He ended up over two hours behind stage winner Peterhansel, his victory chances in tatters.
Peterhansel finished the first day with a whopping 9m30s advantage over the first of the W2RC contenders, Overdrive Racing’s Yazeed Al Rajhi in second.
Al Rajhi reduced the deficit to Peterhansel on the second stage but plunged out of contention as his Toyota Hilux T1 ground to a halt with a broken front differential on the next test, promoting Prokop into second and handing Przgónski the net lead of the event in third.
As the event entered the dunes, Al-Attiyah came to the fore, winning three consecutive stages, with Loeb second on each occasion. Despite their troubles, both title contenders elected to focus their efforts on the championship standings.
“Our focus is on the long-term goal of the championship title so second place for the third time is a good result,” said BRX team principal Gus Beteli at the end of stage four. “Nasser is in the terrain he loves, and he is very fast and difficult to catch, while Séb is learning every day and showing how fast the Hunter is in the dunes.”
Al-Attiyah was unstoppable and duly took the final stage win as the field arrived back in Abu Dhabi for the finish, with Loeb crucially third quickest behind Al Rajhi.
Meanwhile, Peterhansel remained unchallenged out front and maintained his healthy margin secured after Al Rajhi’s stoppage.
Peterhansel shipped over 12 minutes to Al-Attiyah on stage four and another 16 minutes on the final test but was comfortably ahead of Prokop at the finish.
Przygónski’s third place was equally relaxed as the Pole, alongside navigator Timo Gottschalk came home over 20 minutes ahead of Loeb.
In the T3 Lightweight Prototype class, South Racing’s Fracisco Lopez Contardo backed up his Dakar triumph with another victory, beating Red Bull Off-Road Junior’s Cristina Gutiérrez by just over eight minutes.
Lopez Contardo won two two stages and took the lead of the event on the second day after mechanical woes forced early leader Guillaume de Mevius to retire.
His Red Bull team-mate Seth Quintero also hit trouble early on, breaking a differential on the first day but bouncing back to claim three stage wins and the final step on the podium.
Lopez Contardo now holds a 21-point lead over Gutiérrez in the standings, with Quintero a further 12 in arrears.
Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge final result:
1 Stéphane Peterhansel/Edouard Boulanger (Audi) 17h43m07s
2 Martin Prokop/Viktor Chytka (Ford Raptor) +29m49s
3 Kuba Przygónski/Timo Gottschalk (X-raid Mini JCw) +1h28m53s
4 Sébastien Loeb/Fabian Lurquin (Bahrain Raid Xtreme) +1h52m11s
5 Nasser Al-Attiyah/Mathieu Baumel (Toyota Gazoo Racing) +19h44m13s
6 Yazeed Al Rajhi/Dirk von Zitzewitz (Overdrive Racing Toyota) +20h11m21s