Spain’s Marc Coma regained the overall lead in the motorcycle category of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge 2009, as surviving crews completed the fourth Hertz loop stage through the emirate’s Empty Quarter to the south and east of Humeem, on Thursday.
Coma caught his great French rival Cyril Despres in the desert and the pair raced together to the finish of the penultimate stage of the UAE’s premier off-road event, which is benefiting from title sponsorship from the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA).
The result sets up the prospect of a ‘winner-takes-all’ showdown between the world’s top two cross-country riders in Friday’s final off-road section back to Abu Dhabi.
Despres will start Friday’s final stage two minutes behind his rival and will need to catch the Spaniard and close to within nine seconds at the end of the special to win the event for a record-breaking fifth time.
“It was not easy at all today. The wind was strong and the visibility was difficult for all the riders. It was a case of finding a safe pace. Tomorrow is a big day. It will decide the rally. All I can do is ride my best. If he catches me (Despres) he wins. I will try to make sure that he doesn’t catch me!” said Coma.
Local quad entrant Obaid Echtibi and South African rider Sean Gaugain were the stars of the day, with Echtibi winning the stage outright on his quad and Gaugain recording second position on his Honda CRF 450 X.
When told that he had won the stage at the arrival into the Tal Mureeb bivouac, a surprised Obaid asked: “Really? I won? Fantastic! I cannot believe that!
“It was a nice stage, a little more open than the last two days. I started as the second quad and I managed to catch Sébastien (Husseini) and I passed him after the service and pushed on to the finish.”
The UAE’s Mohammed Husseini finished the day in fourth and continues to lead the quad category.
Despres and Coma continued their battle of cat and mouse through the fourth Hertz stage, which featured passage controls (PC) at the 78km, 109km, 154km and 243km points and headed through the region of Abu Dhabi’s Empty Quarter to the south and east of Humeem.
Coma had gained 1m 31s on his rival through PC1 and extended his lead to 1m 47s through PC2, although South Africa’s Sean Gaugain was the man in form on the day’s stage. He headed Ullesvalseter by 17 seconds through 109km.
Australia’s Youcef Cummings was unable to restart after it emerged that he had aggravated an old collarbone injury during the third stage on Wednesday
South Africa’s Mark Ackerman began to turn up his pace through the middle of the stage and he and stage leader Gaugain were the form riders into the third checkpoint. Coma continued to shadow Despres through the sandy wastelands and his virtual stage lead over the Frenchman rose to 1m 54s. Echtibi and Husseini benefited from the tactics of the leading duo and they surged through the closing kilometres to record the first and fourth fastest times on the day’s stage.
Tomorrow (Friday) is the final day of this year’s Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge and surviving teams will tackle one 275.93km selective section in a total route of 419.37km, according to event chairman Mohammed Ben Sulayem, FIA Vice-President for Sport and President of the Automobile and Touring Club of the United Arab Emirates (ATCUAE).
The single competitive section replaces the two shorter tests that have been used in previous years and the action finishes 60.44km from rally headquarters. Teams will then take a road liaison section to the ADIMSC in Abu Dhabi, where the ceremonial finish is scheduled for 4pm.
The Desert Challenge has the backing of key players, including the event's title sponsor, Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA), Nissan, ADNOC, Beach Rotana - Abu Dhabi, etisalat, Explorer, Hertz, Lambda Electronics, Oasis Water, TAG Heuer and the ADIMSC.
Leading positions on Leg 4 – Hertz special (unofficial @ 14.25hrs):
1. Obaid Echtibi (UAE) Honda TRX - 4h 19m 34s*
2. Sean Gaugain (ZA) Honda CRF 450X - 4h 19m 53s
3. Jakub Przygonski (PL) KTM 690 R - 4h 20m 17s
4. Sébastien Husseini (UAE) KTM 525 XC - 4h 21m 33s*
5. Mark Ackerman (ZA) KTM 450 - 4h 23m 06s
6. Pal-Anders Ullesvalseter (N) KTM 690 R - 4h 23m 57s
7. Dave McBride (GB) Honda CRF 450 X - 4h 25m 01s
8. Marc Coma (E) KTM 690 R - 4h 25m 48s
9. Cyril Despres (F) KTM 690 R - 4h 28m 00s
* denotes quad
Overall positions after Leg 4 (unofficial @ 14.25hrs):
1. Marc Coma (E) KTM 690 R - 16h 36m 23s
2. Cyril Despres (F) KTM 690 R - 16h 38m 13s
3. Pal-Anders Ullesvalseter (N) KTM 690 R - 16h 45m 58s
4. Sean Gaugain (ZA) Honda CRF 450X - 16h 58m 14s
5. Jakub Przygonski (PL) KTM 690 R - 17h 07m 36s
6. Mark Ackerman (ZA) KTM 450 - 17h 09m 32s
7. Dave McBride (GB) Honda CRF 450 X - 17h 12m 15s