ALKHOBAR: Saudi Arabia’s Yazeed Al-Rajhi beat two-time Dakar Rally champion Carlos Sainz by 1.2 seconds to claim the fastest time over an extended opening 6.34km stage at the Sharqiya Baja on Thursday.
Forty-nine cars, 7 NUTVs, 14 motorcycles, 16 quads and 1 truck took the official start of the fifth and final round of the inaugural Saudi Toyota Desert Rally Championship on Half Moon Bay near Alkhobar.
Driving a Toyota Hilux alongside navigator Michael Orr, Al-Rajhi carded a time of 3min 59.4sec and will be first on the road when the action switches to the open desert on Friday morning. Sainz and co-driver Lucas Cruz are using the event as a pre-Dakar shakedown in the first of two X-raid MINI Buggies.
Abu Dhabi Racing’s Sheikh Khalid Al-Qassimi finished the stage in third place, 7.9 seconds off the lead, while Czech Miroslav Zapletal and Al-Rajhi’s title rival Yasir Seaidan rounded off the top five.
ED Racing’s Essa Al-Dossari was the best of the rest in his Nissan Navara from Saleh Al-Abdelali’s seventh-placed Hummer and Ahmed Al-Shegawi in eighth.
Zimbabwe’s Conrad Rautenbach and Portuguese co-driver Pedro Bianchi Prata used their PH Sport Can-Am Zephyr for the first time in the T3 category and held ninth place overall and an advantage of 4.7 seconds over 11th-placed Saleh Al-Saif at the end of the stage.
Salman Al-Shammeri posted the target of 5min 20.4sec in the T2 section for series production cross-country vehicles, but that was eclipsed by Yousef Al-Suwaidi’s run of 5min 12.6sec.
Ibrahim Al-Muhanna, Osama Al-Sanad and Raed Abo Theeb safely negotiated the short special in their T4 Mercedes, while Zakariya Al-Tuwaijri held a 2.6-second lead over Majed Al-Tuwaijri in the NUTVs.
Motorcycles tackled the stage first and Mishal Alghuneim set the target time of 5min 54.2sec on his KTM and that was enough to claim the fourth quickest time on two wheels. The stage win fell to Emirati rider Othman Al-Ghufeli on a Honda with a run of 5min 39.0sec. The Saudi duo of Mohammed Al-Muaikil and Fahad Al-Hijab were second and third.
Sufiyan Al-Omar laid down the gauntlet in the quad category with an unofficial opening stage of 4min 46.3sec and that was 8.9 seconds faster than the time set by title contender Abdulmajeed Al-Khulaifi. Abdullah Al-Shegawi completed the special in third, but Al-Khulaifi’s main series rival Riyadh Al-Oraifan dropped three minutes and came home in 16th.
The event is organized by the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation (SAMF), under the chairmanship of Prince Khalid bin Sultan Al-Abdullah Al-Faisal and the supervision of former FIA Middle East champion Abdullah Bakhashab.
Inclement weather conditions and heavy rain on Tuesday and a poor forecast for the weekend forced Baja officials to make last minute changes to the weekend’s route through the desert. The service park was also moved.
On Friday, competitors tackle a shortened selective section of 197.18km in place of the original 257.44km through the deserts of the Kingdom’s Eastern Province. Saturday’s final timed section has been reduced from 213.10km to 171.25km, so officials have lost around 100km of stage distance due to the weather.