Pablo Quintanilla and Sam Sunderland’s teammate Matthias Walkner of Austria took close minor places. French KTM factory teammate Antoine Meo rejoined the team after a long injury break and finished seventh, an indication that he is on track to be a front line contender in 2017. The factory team’s Toby Price, the 2016 Dakar Rally winner is still recuperating at home in Australia after a sustaining a broken femur in January at this year’s Dakar.
Sunderland, who is at home in the desert-racing environment, is expected to have tough competition from his own teammates, but also from Quintanilla, the reigning FIM world rally champion. Sunderland finished just under three seconds ahead of the Chilean on his KTM 450 RALLY bike, setting the scene for a close contest between these two riders. Walkner is also expected to be a real contender this season. He finished second in the 2017 Dakar Rally and on Sunday was only one minute off the pace of the two leaders.
Sunderland: “Today it was really tough starting from the back and I knew we had to push a lot to catch the guys in front. It was also really physical. After about 22 km I tried a different line through the dunes and I think I lost a bit of time there and had to push back to try to catch up. But the bike is working well, and I had a good fight with Pablo, just like we did all last season. But I think that’s good for both of us. We push each other.”
Walkner said the stage had been a difficult mix of hard and soft sand and although he found the stage ‘cool’, he said he had lacked a little confidence at the start of the special: “I remember the dunes from two years ago, which was my first time here. I have a lot of respect for them because they are sharp and difficult to read. They (Sam and Pablo) were about one minute in front after 60-65 km. I tried to follow them but I got stuck in one dune. I went up again and got stuck a second time and I lost one or two minutes. Then at the refueling I found out they were two minutes in front and I began to feel better and more confident in this type of terrain. So I was able to catch them and we rode together to the finish. I was happy with my day.”
Meo said it had been a tough return to racing, especially the first 100 km, but he was happy with his first stage and thanked the team for helping him to come back to competition after his long injury break. “It was good to be back racing but the stage was pretty long for me, and it was very hot and difficult after one year out. We can train as much as we want, but racing is racing. But I’m very happy because I didn’t crash, and there were no big scares and that’s very important because this is a difficult rally. At the moment I don’t have the level to ride at the speed of Sam and Matthias, but I try to learn the navigation, and to enjoy the experience.”
On Sunday, in the Yas Marina Circuit Link section, the first of five stages, riders tackled total of 418.95 km, the timed special was 276.59 km, sandwiched between two liaison sections. The race was held under oppressive temperatures of up to 47°C. Monday’s second stage, the “Nissan Patrol” takes riders over a total of 371.23 km, including 278.90 of timed special.
Results/Standings Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge 2017 after 1 of 5 stages
1. Sam Sunderland (GBR), KTM, 3:31:09.5 h
2. Pablo Quintanilla (CH), Husqvarna, +5.7 sec
3. Matthias Walkner (AUT), KTM, +1:07.1 min
4. Paolo Goncalves (POR), Honda, +3:10.3
5. Pela Renet (FRA), Husqvarna, +6:39.9
7. Antoine Meo (FRA), KTM, +20:03.6
8. Mohammed Jaffar (KUW), KTM, +25.33.0
9. Mohammed Al Balooshi (ARG), KTM, +36:58.2
10. David McBride (GBT), KTM, +42:56.1