Leg 3: Tal Mureeb to Tal Mureeb -- Nissan selective section, 340.60km



*  Chicherit and Despres win Nissan stage; UAE's Husseini stars in quads

* ADTA's Ahmed Hussein visits Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge stage
* UAE's Bin Soughat second fastest in a Nissan: UAE's Al Falaisi injured

TAL MUREEB, ABU DHABI (UAE) Wednesday March 25 2009: BMW X-raid's Guerlain Chicherit and fellow Frenchman, Cyril Despres are the overall leaders of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge 2009, after the third, 340 kilometre, Nissan-backed loop stage through the emirate's Empty Quarter (Wednesday March 25 2009).

Chicherit and Swedish co-driver, Tina Thorner, extended their advantage over the UAE's Yayha Al Helai and Khalid Al Kendi to 1 hour 57 minutes 51 seconds in the car category.

This was helped when Al Helai suffered transmission problems in the latter stages of the day's punishing selective section. Chicherit admitted to suffering from 'dune sickness' for much of this difficult stage and said that he was 'physically shattered' at the finish.

"It was a really tough job to reach the end," said Chicherit. "I was driving well and was pushing hard until the assistance point. Then, I started to feel a bit sick and I had a mental fight to keep it going. I think it is a combination of the heat and the motion of being, in the dunes - like being in a boat.

"The car was perfect, the mechanics did a great job and Tina (Thorner) was superb today. I was not in a good shape and she encouraged me to the finish."

Meanwhile, four-time bike category winner, Despres managed to edge ahead of Spain's overnight leader, Marc Coma, to regain the lead he had held in the opening leg.

"I thought that Coma might have taken a little more time out of me than he did today," admitted Despres. "From the first 25km, I really tried to gain some time and gave a hard ride.

I have to open the road tomorrow and he will catch me. But, then I have the chance to catch him again on the final day. This is typical for the Desert Challenge. It is never easy!"

Coma remained well clear of third-placed Norwegian, Pal-Anders Ullesvalseter, with South African rider, Sean Gaugain leading the way in the 450cc class on his Honda CRF 450. The UAE's Mohammed Husseini began the day with a useful lead of over 54 minutes in the quad category and extended his advantage still further after a stunning ride to the seventh fastest time.

Ahmed Hussein, Deputy Director General Tourism Operations Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA), joined the public spectators and braved hot desert conditions for a first-hand view. ADTA is the event's title sponsor.

Nissan Leg 3 rally overview

After a 54.30km transfer from the bivouac to the start, the day's selective section started on time. Coma led the bike contingent into what is widely regarded as the most difficult section of the entire Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge.

Four passage controls (PCs) were located at the 70km, 167km, 221km and 284km points, and Despres was the virtual stage leader through PCs one and two, which were located in the same place, split by a tricky north-westerly desert loop of 97km.

The Nissan-backed stage then headed west towards the Al Hilew settlement and on to PC3, before turning through a sea of sand dunes to cross the Mizair'a to Arada highway en route to a finish at Tal Mureeb.

Despres had regained the virtual overall lead heading towards PC3, while Chicherit continued to pull away from the pursuing Nissan Patrols of Yayha Al Helai, Abdullah Al Herais and Ahmed Bin Soughat in the car category.

A minor accident and an engine problem forced Italian rider Oscar Polli to return to the bivouac. Despres maintained his progress at the head of the field through the final dunes and reached the finish in front of Coma. However, the canny Spaniard had reduced the deficit to 1m 47s over the final section and finished the day 22 seconds behind his great rival in the general classification.

Meanwhile, local rider, Khalid Al Falaisi fell and was evacuated to hospital complaining of back and abdominal pains, and Italy's Alex Zanotti was also airlifted out of the dunes suffering from dehydration.

Al Helai dropped crucial time with transmission woes through the final treacherous kilometres, as Ahmed Bin Soughat cruised into second place on the leg and moved up from the lower reaches of the leader board, but not without a challenge.

"I am very lucky today," said Al Helai. "I was racing alongside Ahmed Bin Soughat and there was a caution in the road book. The helicopter was there and I wanted to give the people (media) a nice photo. I was in third gear, with a speed of about 120 (km), and I never saw this jump!

"Ahmed slowed down and I broke the front drive shaft. But, I managed to get to the finish - 130km with just two-wheel drive!"

Bin Soughat remained composed: "It was just a little overheating; it was a good stage for me," he said.

The solitary Italian Iveco truck, crewed by Marco Dono, Graziano Pelanconi and Atillo Bettiga, started the stage from 10th position among the cars and held 19th at the second passage control en route to the stage finish. Ramesh Pereira was not as fortunate as his Nissan Patrol was damaged by fire on Tuesday and he was unable to continue.

"Thursday (March 26) is the last of the loop stages around the bivouac and marks the end of the really difficult sand dunes," said event Chairman, Mohammed Ben Sulayem, FIA Vice-President for Sport and President of the Automobile and Touring Club of the United Arab Emirates ATC UAE).

"Having said that, our team has revised the final day and the new route of the fifth leg will not be easy at all."

The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge 2009 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.

-credit: uaedesertchallenge.com