Al-Attiyah sets early pace as championship leader Loeb makes steady start at Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge

ABU DHABI: World Rally-Raid Championship leader Sebastien Loeb gave Bahrain Raid Xtreme a comfortable start to the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge on Sunday as the second round of the series got underway in the UAE.

Partnered by Fabian Lurquin in his BRX Prodrive Hunter, Loeb set the third fastest time on the 6.76 km Prologue at Al-Dhannah, which was won by his big W2RC title rival, Nasser Al-Attiyah.

Driving another Prodrive Hunter, 2009 Desert Challenge winner Guerlain Chicherit recorded the second quickest time in partnership with Alex Winocq, just four seconds adrift of the Qatari’s Toyota.

Marking his 49th birthday, Loeb was only six seconds further away, and knows the battle starts in earnest tomorrow when the rally begins a five-day passage taking in the towering dunes of the Rub Al Khali.

Saudi Arabia’s Yazeed Al-Rajhi was fourth fastest on the day in a Toyota, with Argentina’s Sebastian Halpern in a Mini and Czech Martin Prokop’s Ford Raptor completing the top six.

Loeb and Chicherit are looking to reproduce the form that gave the Prodrive Hunter nine victories in 14 stages of January’s Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia, a record six of those in succession for the nine-time World Rally Champion.

Loeb finished the Prologue to say: “It was difficult to optimize everything because we had the motor bike line and it was really soft. We tried to cut in some places, and I think some of the other guys cut even more. But it was OK — no problem at all. It was a good stage overall.”

Chicherit, lying third in the W2RC, said: “It was great. It’s always good to start to find the right speed right away. Even if it’s less than 7 km. Almost a perfect stage, apart from when we went left, instead of right, when it was really dusty and we lost a few seconds.”

This is the first time that Al-Dhannah has hosted the Desert Challenge, and the Prologue got under way after the rally competitors and support crews had made the 250-km transfer from Abu Dhabi in the morning.

Monday brings the first of five demanding stages through the desert of the Al-Dhafra region in a route of 2,170 km leading to the rally finish back in the UAE capital on Friday afternoon.