By Robb Pritchard, Off-Road correspondent
- Peterhansel and Mini win in Abu Dhabi
- Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge: April 1-7
- Round 2 of the FIA World Cup for Cross Country Bajas
Duel of the Desert
The Taj Mahal, they say, was built as a monument to love. The Eiffel Tower stands tall as a perfect example of structural engineering, as the Hagia Sophia does to the testament of God... but at the edge of the barren desert and the gleaming blue sea the cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi exist unashamedly as a celebration of nothing more than wealth.
The call to prayer echoes off the mirror-glassed skyscrapers but the extravagance and opulence is supped from the thick black blood of another God whose domain is this dusty land... the currency in the United Arab Emirates is oil.
But I am far away from the glitz and glamour, deep in the desert, criss-crossing camel tracks in the Empty Quarter, one of the harshest and most sparcely populated places on the planet, to see a competition of fabled toughness to test human endurance and achievement to the limit. When Dakar winners, ex-F1 drivers and Cross Country World Champions say that this is one of the hardest there is, then you need to beleive them.
Welcome to the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge.
The soft and suffuse lights around a hotel pool illuminated the very dignified Muhammed Bin Sulaeem, the arms of his bright white thoub (traditional Arab dress) billowing as he welcomed participants who'd come from all over the world. In front of the lobby curious press and eager looking valet parkers strolled around the freshly stickered cars parked among the Porsches and Maseratis of the other hotel guests. Under the skin the X-Raid Mini is basically a BMW X3CC, but stood side by side it's undoubtedly the Mini that all eyes are drawn to... although many stopped to ponder Fadi Melki's unique Range Rover. At first glance it looks a bit like a slightly aneamic Bowler Nemesis, but actually it's a classic Rangie chassis with a metallic Gold Sport body on top... and it looks stunning.
The prolouge was run on a construction site near the centre of the city and there were two surprises for the crowd of amused onlookers. One, how Peterhansel could be 5 seconds quicker than anyone else over less than a couple of kilometres and how Roman Briskindov could be 4th in only his second ever rally-raid, in his rented G-Force Proto. He'd had some dune training before the event from a local desert driving expert, but when I asked him what exactly he'd learned, all he said was, "Follow the camel shit!" His guide explained though that this was actually quite serious advice. "Camels don't just climb up the dunes for fun, they only walk on the roads they know, so if you follow the camel shit you know that the track you are on is going to lead you somewhere..."
I heard a few grumbles about how artificial and easy the prologue was, but the first 290km stage immediately demonstrated the severity of the rally as by the time dusk fell over the dusty base campsite near the border with Saudi Arabia the leaderboard had been decimated; half the field failed to make it home. Even stage winner and Dakar legend Stephane Peterhansel found it hard. "The last time I was here was in 2007 and I forgot how hot it was here. I was really uncomfortable in the cabin."
Many others had a much harder time though. The winner of the first round of the FIA World Cup Boris Gadasin had to endure a logistical nightmare just to get his G-Force team to the UAE so soon after Italy, flying the cars, shipping the service truck and getting all the team members here, so when a flat-out kink that wasn't in the roadbook caught him out after just 4km, sending him barrel- rolling down the track, the whole team were understandably absolutely gutted.
Mark Powell, director of Team Saluki was running a new and innovative buggy called the Predator, but because the spare wheel straps dangled a bit too close to the exhaust pipe the back of the car caught fire. Clouds of smoke are hard to spot when mixed with the plume of dust behind, especially when the road ahead demands such concentration, so the only indication they had that something was wrong was when the engine cut out... because the accelerator cable had melted...
The last time I was here was in 2007 and I forgot how hot it was here.
Briskindov, the hero of the prolouge was again in an amazing 4th place at the first CP but a small issue with the steering took a long time to fix as he wasn't too familiar with the car, Malcolm Anderson's immaculate Classic Range Rover shed a wheel at 110km and one of the friendliest guys in the camp, Nizar Al Shanfari's beautiful-looking Buggy lost a cylinder before the insides of the engine decided to have a dance of death together, leaving his mechanics to strip the old lump out while a new motor was driven down from Dubai.
But through the carnage local driver Saeed Alhameli found his way to 6th place in his near standard Nissan Patrol... and if that wasn't an impressive enough achievement on its own, he did it without the help of a co-driver! In the camp he was an instant hero!
One thing the Desert Challenge does a little different to other events is that those who didn't make it to the end of one day's stage are allowed to re-start the next, and after a night where the campsite looked like a battlefield all but one of the cars managed to start again... but the second stage, at 250km, was no easier... "It was gnarly!" Mark Powell sighed. "Lots of short, sharp dunes intersected by huge rolling plains and treacherously bumpy salt flats... There is never a moment to relax."
One of Motorsport's living legends, Jean-Louis Schlesser and one of the most down to earth gentlemen you will ever see in a pair of racing overalls, told me why this event is so hard. "For me the Desert Challenge is harder that the Dakar because although it is not so long it's so hot and also every stage is just so constantly technical."
And it was hot. The temperature gauge peaked at a blistering 46 degrees and as I stood on top of a dune worrying about how hot my camera was getting, the drivers were of course having an unimaginably hard time. Gadasin's air- conditioning got broken in the previous day's crash and while some people sniggered at the loss of such a luxury, when the cabin temperature is a constant 65 degrees, up to 68 at one point... while wearing a thick racing suit... and controlling a 400hp monster at 160km/h on the sand... it's not too surprising that after a few hours of pushing himself to the limit he succomed to heatstroke. Even a few of the locals suffered the same way, Alhameli among them and even Peterhansel's racing suit was stained with white sweat marks... through three layers...
I stood alone in the utter wilderness near the end of the stage contemplating the paradox of the desert, how it can be so breath-takingly beautiful, yet at the same moment so harsh, and as I waited I couldn't help but wonder at life itself... with the spindly bushes clinging tentitively to existence at what seemed like against all odds, and the flowers, so delicate, opening to such a searing sun. And the fact that the whole entire landscape as far as the eye can see is made up of billions upon billions of individual grains of sand that first are blown into ripples and waves, light upon a darker red, then into ridges and on and on until they form huge, rolling hill like dunes. It's an absolutely amazing place. But above the sound of the constant wind there is another sound, a feathered V8 as it leaps over the jumps as Schlesser roars by.
One thing that you'll never conceive while watching the BBC or CNN is how gracious the hospitality of the local Arabs is and Sameer, the Competitior Relation Officer explained that it is to do with the unforgiving harshness of the desert. "You know that you can't survive here alone, so you learn to give what you have, knowing that it will come back to you one day when you need it yourself," he said. And perhaps quite fittingly, it was the same selfless hospitality that determined the outcome of the event.
Peterhansel had made a mistake and was stuck in a place that he had no hope of digging himself out of, and the only chance of help came in the form of the event leader and team mate Novitsky. But then the very next day Peterhansel absolutely blitzed the field with a time that blew everyone away much harder than the storm that was whipping up the sands. Showing the kind of desert driving perfection that has taken him to 7 Dakar titles, over the 350km monster stage he was some 20 minutes faster than his closest rival. An exhausted Novitsky was obviously gutted, but he knew that if he'd have driven past his stranded team mate the victory would have been hollow.
The stage was also Briskindov's last. An innocuous looking dune hid a steep drop behind it and the hard landing in his G-Force Proto was enough to crack his tail bone. The air ambulance was sent out for him in which was fortunately the only serious injury of the event. After showing such promise many people asked the team to pass on their hopes that he will come back to the series soon.
It looks like the dune is much higher so you go much too fast... and then suddenly you are falling
And then on the last stage the real storm came. The sand crunched in my mouth and ground in my camera lense, but behind the wheel was where the real struggle was. "When it blows so hard off the top of the dunes you can see where the real ridge is," Schlesser told me. "It looks like the dune is much higher so you go much too fast... and then suddenly you are falling." The missing body panels on his and Novitsky's cars at the finish line testament to how hard it was out there.
Maybe some would say that the final leaderboard was predictable, but make no mistake, with a winning time of over 20 hours, both man and machine were tested to the absolute limit.
The glamour of the Yas Marina F1 circuit was a huge contrast to the vast barren desert but the Mini seems as naturally at home on the podium as it does in the desert... as does the one and only Stephane Peterhansel. It's the Mini's first major victory, and don't expect it to be the last.