2023 Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge: Heat intensifies in Stage 2

The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge is called that for a reason. While deserts are naturally very hot environments, temperatures in the United Arab Emirates have run especially high since the start of the rally and did not decline for Stage #2 as it climaxed at 40° C.

Nasser Al-Attiyah did not seem fazed by the heat in the slightest as he continued to dominate the T1 category with his third straight stage win and in even more convincing fashion than Monday, beating fellow Toyota Hilux Yazeed Al-Rajhi by over twelve minutes. While out of contention due to his Stage #1 retirement and subsequent fifty-hour time penalty for changing his engine between legs, Sébastien Loeb clocked in the second best time in a strong rebound as he hopes to salvage stage wins for the World Championship.

While Hiluxes occupied the top two for the second day in a row, Henk Lategan was unable to complete another podium sweep as a problem with his boost knocked him out.

After a roller coaster Sunday and Monday, Mattias Ekström finally hit his stride to win T3 for his second stage win of 2023 but first outside of a preliminary leg (he won the Prologue in T1 at the Dakar Rally). Ekström had to hold off the Red Bull Can-Ams of Seth Quintero and Austin Jones, the former of whom remains the overall leader in the class.

The Red Bulls had won T3 and T4 in the Prologue and Stage #1, but came up short on Tuesday. In T4, Rokas Baciuška was defeated by Mansour Al-Helei by nearly six minutes; Al-Helei is the second non-W2RC competitor to win a stage in Abu Dhabi after Tobias Ebster claimed the Rally2 Prologue.

The scorching weather took its toll on both two- and four-wheelers, with some reporting severe overheating in their vehicles. Although much of the field had raced in the desert at the Dakar Rally, the weather in Saudi Arabia in January was much colder and wetter than the UAE at the moment.

To further crank up the difficulty beyond the heat, the FIM categories were in marathon conditions for Stages #2 and #3, meaning riders were not allowed to receive outside help and must lean on their peers; RallyGP riders are granted thirty minutes to make adjustments between stages, while Rally2 gets an hour. This was quickly apparent for Skyler Howes, who finished runner-up in RallyGP to Husqvarna team-mate Luciano Benavides: a rubber seal in his rear fuel pump broke after refuelling halfway through the stage, forcing him to ride to the finish conservatively, after which Benavides and Toby Price came to help him replace the damaged component. Benavides, whose first career World Championship leg victory came in Abu Dhabi (Stage #4) in 2022, and Howes also finished 1–2 in Stage #6 at Dakar.

The combination of the high temperatures, marathon stages, and the Empty Quarter desert’s dunes meant mistakes accumulated quickly. For example, Ebster placed second to Paolo Lucci in Stage #2 after losing time when he missed a turn and drove off a three-meter drop. Jon Florea retired after misjudging a broken dune and crashing headfirst, tearing a ligament in his left shoulder and ending his race. Pablo Quintanilla lost the overall RallyGP lead after finishing ninth, which Honda team-mate Adrien Van Beveren capitalised as his fifth propelled him ahead by 1:30.

“Starting in front and opening the stage is always a difficult challenge and we knew today wouldn’t be different,” commented Quintanilla. “The main goal was to be in front to have the bonus, so in the end it was not so bad. I was riding in front until kilometre 80 and then Adrien arrived and we were riding together. Overall, I think this was a good stage, a good performance in the first part of the marathon stage. It is always very hard to manage these days since we are on our own without any assistance from the team.”

Laisvydas Kancius edged out Abdulaziz Ahli by less than two minutes to snap his win streak in the Quads, though the latter remains first overall by 42:45.

Stage #2 winners

Class Number Competitor Team Time
T1 201 Nasser Al-Attiyah Toyota Gazoo Racing 3:33:39
T3 300 Mattias Ekström South Racing Can-Am 3:52:09
T4 405 Mansour Al-Helei* Abu Dhabi Team 3:58:22
RallyGP 77 Luciano Benavides Husqvarna Factory Racing 3:24:50
Rally2 46 Paolo Lucci BAS World KTM Racing Team 3:36:06
Quad 162 Laisvydas Kancius AG Dakar School 4:21:45
* – Not competing in World Rally-Raid Championship

Leaders after Stage #2

Class Number Competitor Team Time
T1 201 Nasser Al-Attiyah Toyota Gazoo Racing 6:47:15
T3 302 Seth Quintero Red Bull Off-Road Junior Team 7:23:21
T4 400 Rokas Baciuška Red Bull Can-Am Factory Racing 7:41:49
RallyGP 42 Adrian Van Beveren Monster Energy Honda Rally Team 7:10:30
Rally2 46 Paolo Lucci BAS World KTM Racing Team 7:39:25
Quad 174 Abdulaziz Ahli Abu Dhabi Team 9:03:33