Two of the world’s leading racers laid down the gauntlet during the opening leg of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge today, as France’s Stéphane Peterhansel and Spain’s Marc Coma dominated their respective car and bike categories.
 Driving his Mini All4 Racing car for Team X-Raid, Peterhansel managed to complete the opening 290kms of the Challenge 7m 16s ahead of teammate and closest rival Leonid Novitskiy. “I’ve never raced this car in a competition before, but it was perfect,” said Peterhansel. “It went really well. I haven’t competed at the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge since 2007, so this is a brilliant comeback for me.”
The first stage, named Al Gharbia after the Western Region province where the dune-based rally is held, kicked off from Al Dafrah, on the edge of Abu Dhabi at 9am. From there, 101 drivers and riders from 30 nations powered out into the vast desert - the largest uninterrupted sand mass in the Middle East - before finishing at the all-new bivouac adjacent to the Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara.   
Despite coming first in leg one of this year’s race, Peterhansel admitted that the day was not without its problems. His water delivery system developed a problem which affected the quality of his drinking water, meaning that he was forced to continue for 150km without hydration. 
Emirati driver Mansoor Bel Helei finished strongly in his first Desert Challenge start, reaching the finish line just 14 seconds short of 10th place in his Nissan Patrol. The 20-year-old took on last year’s competition as co-driver to his father, Yahya Bel Helei, and revealed he is confident of climbing through the field.
However, it was not all good news in the cars category. Early on in the day, Russian star Boris Gadasin, racing for G-Force Motorsport, rolled his Proto buggy while navigating a particularly tough dune. Luckily, Gadasin and his co-driver, Dan Shchemel, escaped unhurt and can continue the race.
In the bikes category, Coma proved that he is as a formidable a competitor as ever by coming home after just 1h 27m 55s on his factory KTM 450. He rounded off an excellent opening day for KTM, which saw three bikes finish in the top five.
UAE competitor Khalid Al Falasi, riding for Team Al Yasi, managed to score an impressive first-day result for his country, finishing the day in eighth. Al Yasi was a mere 16 minutes behind Coma and looks set to live up to his name as the competition’s most successful Arab rider.  
In the quads category, it was the UAE’s Atif Al Zarouni who crossed the line first, beating closest rival, Luis Henderson of Uruguay, by four minutes. Briton Nicholas Black rounded off the quads top three, clocking a time of 2h 3m on his Yamaha Raptor. 
As always, the trucks category provided a great deal of excitement, with Andrey Karginov completing the first leg in his 12-tonne Kamaz truck in just 5h 27m – faster than a number of cars.
Ronan Morgan, clerk of the course, congratulated the competitors on a good first day and expressed his delight at there being no serious incidents. “The best thing about today is that we had no serious accidents. Everyone got back safely, and that’s always the best thing.”
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