SAN LUIS RIO COLORADO (MÉXICO) – Saturday, April 29: Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah and Mathieu Baumel took a giant step towards retaining their FIA World Rally-Raid Championship (W2RC) title with victory in the six-day Sonora Rally in northern México.
Once arch title rival Sébastien Loeb had retired after the third stage, the Qatari was able to fend off the challenge from Overdrive Racing team-mates, Yazeed Al-Rajhi and Timo Gottschalk, to claim victory at the finish in San Luis Rio Colorado by 6min 22sec. He won two of the event’s five stages, picking up valuable bonus points along the way, and now has a 30-point lead in the Drivers’ Championship over Al-Rajhi.
The Toyota Hilux driver said: “Feeling good. I am happy to win the Sonora Rally. We have an amazing week and a good lead now. This was very important for the championship.”
Al-Rajhi won the recent Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge and remains in contention for the title himself heading into the last two rounds of the series in Argentina and Morocco. The Saudi won the Prologue and the third stage – the longest of the entire event – and secured second position.
Al-Rajhi said: “We are happy with second place after a tough race and a lot of problems. We have problems with the cable for brakes on second stage but Timo and the team did a great job. It was a tough fight and we do it well.”
Argentinean Juan-Cruz Yacopini and Spaniard Daniel Oliveras drove the third of the Overdrive Racing-run Toyotas and climbed up the leader board to finish in a fine fifth after a careful start. Yacopini added: “It was a really good rally for us. We finish in fifth position and we continued to gain experience. That is the goal of this year.”
Eugenio Amos and Paolo Ceci blotted their copybook with an accident early in the race in the fourth Hilux, but the Italian belied the fact that he has only competed on one event before this encounter in the last 18 months and quickly got to grips with the Toyota to finish 24th. The Italian said: “I think the last stage was the fastest of my life in terms of pure speed. I’m not sure if I was happy or frightened with the speed we had. Many kilometres we were flat out at 160, 170. Keeping the concentration was a little bit difficult but we finished the rally and the car is in one piece. I am happy.”
Al-Rajhi made the perfect start to his Sonora Rally campaign with the fastest time on the 9.42km Prologue at the Autodromo Cerro Colorado, near Hermasillo. The Saudi carded a time of 5min 18.8sec to beat team-mate Al-Attiyah by 0.2 seconds. Amos and Yacopini finished the stage in 13th and 15th. The first of five stages was divided into three short sections, ran for 174.38km and looped around Hermasillo. The start was slightly delayed but it failed to prevent Al-Attiyah pressing on to claim five bonus points for the stage win. The Qatari pipped Al-Rajhi to the laurels by 27 seconds to give Toyota a 1-2 at the night halt, although Amos had rolled heavily in the stage and incurred time penalties for failing to complete the section. He plummeted to the foot of the rankings.
Al-Rajhi’s co-driver Gottschalk said: “First proper day here in the Sonora Desert and, to be honest, it was more difficult than I expected. It was a proper stage, short but a tough one and it’s a special terrain with lots of farmyards, farmland and small villages. It reminded me a little bit of Argentina in the old times on the Dakar, really soft in the beginning with fesh-fesh, twisty roads and blind corners between bushes and trees and a lot of cactus.”
Yacopini, who finished the stage in 15th place, added: “We had one puncture at the beginning and then it was a bit difficult to find the rhythm.”
Stage two was scheduled to run in a northerly direction for 286.07km between Hermasillo and the coastal resort city of Puerto Peñasco but was shortened to 161.96km om safety grounds. Loeb edged Al-Attiyah for the stage win and snatched a slender three-second advantage, but Al-Rajhi suffered serious brake issues in the heat after 35km and slipped down the rankings to fifth. Yacopini climbed to 13th overall. Al-Attiyah said: “It was a good day and we opened all day. We lose a little bit of time to Sébastian Loeb but we have a better road position tomorrow. It was not an easy stage. The road was not well marked. It is a new race for everybody.”
Amos was grateful to the Overdrive Racing team for repairing his Hilux. The Italian remained in 27th overall. He said: “We basically spent the whole stage behind the dust of three of four T3 cars. We had to survive and lose as little time as possible. The surroundings are amazing. Plenty of cactus and, I believe, also plenty of snakes here, so let’s be careful. Yesterday, I was a bit too fast on the entry of a turn and I went a little bit too wide on the left side and there was some camel grass and we had a double roll.”
The third stage ran for 359.27km and was the longest of the event, looping through the deserts alongside the Sea of Cortez before returning to Puerto Peñasco. With rival Loeb forced to retire when his co-driver Fabian Lurquin injured his right shoulder after an accident, Al-Rajhi and Al-Attiyah battled it out for the stage win and the Saudi took the day’s laurels and five bonus points by 3min 09sec from Argentina’s Sebastien Halpern. Al-Attiyah came home in third and regained the overall lead. Yacopini was fifth on a physically demanding day and climbed to seventh.
Al-Attiyah said: “It was a tough stage. We had a small problem with the fuel pump and two punctures. Then, after we saw in the first 20 or 30km that Sebastien Loeb crashed, it was not an easy road.”
The fourth and penultimate stage of 248km looped through the deserts to the south and east of Puerto Peñasco. Al-Attiyah took full advantage of his rival’s demise to earn yet another five bonus points for the stage win, the Qatari finishing 4min 31sec ahead of Al-Rajhi to extend his lead to 7min 22sec. Yacopini, who punctured, and Amos came home in sixth and 13th and held seventh and 24th in the general classification. Amos had changed some settings on the car and was impressed with the difference. “We have a good gap and we know that even if Yazeed catch us on the short final stage, we have time in hand,” said Al-Attiyah’s co-driver Baumel. “We are not in a bad position. The first two days were on narrow tracks between the cactus and the last two days have been more open roads and some small white dunes.”
The final stage ran for 138.23km in the Altar Desert between Puerto Peñasco and San Luis Rio Colorado, one of the northernmost towns in México, close to the border with the USA. Al-Rajhi claimed the winner’s laurels on the final stage but Al-Attiyah erred on the side of caution to confirm the win and move into the lead in the W2RC Championship. Yacopini displaced China’s Guoyo Zhang and climbed to fifth overall.