Cyril Despres and Sam Sunderland emerged as the early pacesetters in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge on Sunday as a heavy sandstorm turned the opening leg into a major challenge.
High winds churning up a wall of sand made visibility a constant problem as the 262km Yas Marina Circuit stage wound its way through the dunes towards it conclusion at the bivouac, the rally’s desert base for the next four days on the fringe of the Rub Al Khali.
The five-stage event is forming the second round of the FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies for cars and the FIM Cross Country Rallies World Championship for bikes.
Partnered by Spain’s Daniel Oliveras in a Mini John Cooper Works Buggy, Frenchman Despres, five-times a Desert Challenge bikes winner, made a positive start in pursuit of his first cars triumph at his second attempt on four wheels.
He completed the stage holding a lead of 5 minutes, 45 seconds over Dutchman Bernhard Ten Brinke and Belgian co-driver Tom Colsoul in a Toyota Hilux Overdrive.
Despres said: “It has been a long time since I started a stage with a storm and strong winds as we had here today. I could not see the crest of the dunes easily. It was challenging.
“This was our first mission with new co-driver Daniel and we are getting to know each other. Also, I am not used to the desert you have here in Abu Dhabi, I need to get back and learn how to read the tracks much better.”
Ten Brinke said he was content to be within range of Despres after overcoming some dramas in the desert.
"It was a good day today," he said. "We started fourth so there were some good tracks to follow. We burst a tyre after jumping a dune and lost 3 or 4 minutes finding a safe spot to change it."
Meanwhile in the bikes, Sunderland, the 2017 Desert Challenge and Dakar Rally winner, produced a hugely impressive performance to lead by 6 minutes, 9 seconds, from Andrew Short. Chile’s Jose Cornejo was 37 seconds away in third with Argentinian Luciano Benavides in fourth.
"I tried to get a good rhythm throughout and avoid mistakes where possible," Sunderland said of his performance.
UAE-based Mark Ackerman is sixth while top Emirati rider Mohammed Al Balooshi had a rough day, finishing more than 42 minutes off the pace in eighth position.
Monday's second stage covers 370km in distance with the action due to get under way at around 8.55am. The event runs until Thursday, with the final stage concluding at Yas Marina Circuit on Thursday.