Masuoka, Esteve Take Lead Roles as UAE Desert Challenge Heads For a Thrilling Climax
Al Mutaiwie, Ullevålseter stay on course for world titles during another epic day of cross country rallying in the spectacular Empty Quarter
Moreeb Hill, Liwa, UAE: Japan's Hiroshi Masuoka and Spain's Isidre Esteve both made their move for victory in the UAE Marlboro Desert Challenge today (Wednesday) to set up a thrilling final leg among the towering dunes and baking heat of the Empty Quarter.
On another spectacular day of cross country rallying at its best, with soaring temperatures again taking their toll, Masuoka powered his Mitsubishi Pajero Montero Evolution from fourth place overnight into a 10 mins 44 secs lead from Belgium's Gregoire De Mevius in a Nissan Pick-Up.
In the race for the bikes title, Esteve built up a cushion of almost eight minutes over fellow-KTM rider
Marek Dabrowski of Poland, while third place kept Norway's Pål Anders Ullevålseter in control in the hunt for the FIM World Championship.
The fastest driver on the third special stage was Masuoka's team-mate, French star Stephane Peterhansel, who put his first-day disasters and time penalties behind him to win it by almost two minutes, although his chances of a third straight win in the event have long gone.
Slipping one place to third in his BMW X5 another 22 minutes adrift, the UAE's Khalifa Al Muwaiwie edged closer to the drivers' crown in the FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies. With Finnish former World Rally Champion Juha Kankkunen holding on to fourth place despite a torrid time in his Volkswagen Touareg, another UAE driver, Ahmed Bin Suqat in a Chevrolet Pick-up, and Frenchman Dominique Housieaux in a Mitsubishi Pajero, completed the top six.
The quality of the performance by Peterhansel and Masuoka was emphasised by the fact that the next fastest car on the day, the Volkswagen of top German lady driver Jutta Kleinschmidt, was almost 17 minutes slower than the Japanese driver.
The Desert Challenge, and the FIA World Cup and FIM World Championship titles will now be decided tomorrow (Thursday) in the 255-KM Nissan special stage. Mohammed Ben Sulayem, chairman of the organising committee, announced that Friday's final leg of the rally has been cancelled in view of the advent of the Holy Month of Ramadan.
He said: "The FIA have been informed as well as the teams and competitors who share our respect for the Holy Month." The final leg will be replaced by a road section from the bivouac to Dubai, where the finish will take place as scheduled at 4.30pm at Dubai International Marine Club.
The start of today's 308-km Al Batin stage was delayed for 50 minutes by early morning fog, and more problems were waiting in the Empty Quarter, even for Masuoka. He dropped four minutes by getting lost in the dunes, and also got stuck twice in soft sand.
Bitterly disappointed on Monday, Peterhansel was bubbling with enthusiasm this time, despite being well down the field. "It was a very nice stage like yesterday's with very big dunes. We couldn't cross them all but didn't stop on any of them. We had a small fuel problem when the tank was nearing empty and I stopped a few times, but nothing major. The engine is perfect and we need it in terrain like this. After day one I said it was never possible to be totally confident, but after two more stages the car is perfect and we will progress from here."
Al Mutaiwei said: "The big dunes were very nice and the rest of the stage was very good. I have a bit of catching up to do but the championship is what's important to me."
Overnight leader De Mevius said: "We came down very heavily from a crest about 100km into the stage and got stuck. We needed to use sand plates to get out. Then 100km from the end the gear shift broke off while I was in fifth gear. Happily I managed to change gear with what was left of it."
A smiling Kleinschmidt commented: "After yesterday's disaster everything went very well technically today. We started dead last and passed a lot of cars so it was a really fun day."
Her Volkswagen team-mates were not so happy. Frenchman Bruno Saby had electrical problems and stopped six times, while Kankkunen said: "It was too difficult. I got stuck many times. It was a beautiful area but a lot of big up and downs and it was tricky and dangerous. It was so hard in the dunes and the temperature was very high and I lost power."
While Esteve remained on course for the Desert Challenge title, the World Championship will be
Ullevålseter's barring a last leg disaster. "Today was very long and there was a lot of very soft sand," he said. "I tried to relax and the aim tomorrow is to use the brain and not do anything silly."
While one Dubai rider, Dave McBride, withdrew with dehydration from the previous day, another, Steven Blackney, had a day to remember as he took seventh place overall. "It was a very technical and very hard stage but it was my kind of desert," he said.
"That's the advantage of growing up here. Although it was technically tough I must be getting older because I spent a lot of time looking at the scenery and appreciating the beauty of the desert. I stayed tight with Ullevalseter for the whole stage and we helped each other through it. I've made up a lot of time today and I'm really happy."
<pre> Provisonal leading positions after 3rd special stage:
Auto 1. Hiroshi Masuoka, Andreas Schulz (J) Mitsubishi Evolution T2 11:08:01 2. Gregoire De Mevius, Jacky Dubois (BE/F) Nissan Pick Up T2 11:18:45 3. Khalifa Al Mutaiwei, Alain Guehennec (UAE /F) BMW T2 11:40:46 4. Juha Kankkunen, Juha Repo (FIN) Volkswagen T2 11:41:10 5. Ahmed Bin Suqat, Jassim Ben Gharib (UAE) Chevrolet Pick Up T2 13:09:07 6. Dominique Housieaux, Loic Fagot (F) Mitsubishi Pajero T2 13:39:32 7. Matthias Kahle, Dr. Thomas Schuenemann (D) 2Drive TW 104/ T2 13:50:32 8. Sergey Shmakov, Sergey Mishin (RU) Honda Buggy T2 14:08:02
Moto 1. Isidre Esteve (ES) KTM 660 Rally 11:58:53 2. Marek Dabrowski (PO) KTM 660 Rally 12:06:21 3. Pal Anders Ullevalseter (NO) KTM 660 Rally 12:19:39 4. Jacek Czachor (PO) KTM 660 Rally 12:29:35 5. Tim Trenker (D) KTM Rally 12:32:27 6. Sean Linton (GB) KTM 660 Rally 12:44:45 7. Steven Blackney (GB) KTM 660 Rally 12:46:31 8. Mark Grams (D) Honda XR650 13:32:21 9. Fablo Fasola (I) KTM 660 Rally 13:56:01 10. Marek Podlipny (CZ) KTM 660 14:03:41