Finishing the final stage of the 2021 Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge in second behind Adrien Van Beveren was enough to see Matthias Walkner walk away as the overall victor.
Ross Branch finished the final stage as third fastest ahead of Andrew Short while Joaquim Rodrigues’ fifth place on the stage was enough to give him the final podium spot in the overall.
The hard luck story of the day was Australian Daniel Sanders running out of fuel and tumbling down the overall rankings after going into the stage a strong contender for the win.
Day five proved tough for all riders, featuring a mix of sand dunes and faster open tracks. Although the 379-kilometer stage included the shortest timed section of the race at 216 kilometers, the special was raced without a break, making it one of the toughest and most physically demanding of the event.
As the second rider into the stage, and with a near four-minute advantage over the next best competitor, Matthias Walkner set about chasing down the rider ahead of him, while concentrating on his navigation during the soft sand dunes in the opening part of the special.
Maintaining his place within the top two for the entire stage, the Austrian star delivered another calculated and consistent ride to ultimately complete the special as runner-up, just over one minute behind the eventual winner. In what has been an impressive display of skill, endurance, and speed by the world champion throughout this final event of the year, Walkner secured the race win by over four and a half minutes to truly confirm his place at the very top of the world championship standings.
“It was really close today!” Walkner said. “The stage was really long without a refuelling point and so towards the end, I had to slow down a lot to conserve fuel. It’s part of our sport that you can have four good days and then nearly be caught out in the last few kilometers. Thankfully, I made it to the finish line and am really happy to win the last race before Dakar. The team did a really good job all week and the bike has been perfect. The whole year has been fantastic for me – with the help of the team, we have all worked really closely to bring the success we’ve had. I have ridden well and not made any big mistakes, or suffered any injuries. I’ve learned a lot, even from this week riding in the sand, which is normally not my best terrain to race in. My riding has improved, and we’ve found some good set-ups for the bike, too. Overall, it’s been an incredible season and to top it off by winning the last race really helps my confidence. The big goal is of course now Dakar, it’s not far away, and I’m really looking forward to it.”
Bringing to an end a highly rewarding season of racing, Adrien Van Beveren secured second overall. Winning three of five stages, the Frenchman underlined his impressive form and after almost 18 hours of racing, finished the rally just over four and a half minutes behind the winner, Matthias Walkner. With Adrien claiming an impressive result at the final round of the FIM Cross-Country Rallies World Championship he advanced to second in the final series standings.
“Winning the last stage after opening, and finishing second in this rally, is a huge moment for me,” Van Beveren said. “The final stage was really tricky to begin with, made even more challenging by leading out so I rode a little cautious, but it paid off. No mistakes and knowing I had a nice gap in the overall classification meant that I could ride without risks and to win the stage, it’s just amazing. All year I’ve been consistent and focused on finishing each and every stage and this rally was no different. This result has come just at the right time ahead of Dakar, so from now until January I will maintain my level and aim to fight for the win there.”
The ever-positive Ross Branch placed a strong third overall on the fifth and final stage. Opening the rally with a win on stage one showed his impressive speed and he remained in contention for the win until a crash and broken navigational tower during the event’s marathon stage ruled him out of the running. Ultimately, Ross enjoyed a positive debut season in the FIM Cross-Country Rallies World Championship, which was undoubtedly headlined by his overall win at Rally Kazakhstan.
“It’s great to finish the final stage here in third place,” Branch said. “It’s a shame about my crash on day two, that really messed things up but being able to ride the last two stages and put more time on the bike and continue learning was really positive. It’s awesome for me to have completed my first full season in the world championship and I can’t thank the Monster Energy Yamaha Rally Team enough for the opportunity. The focus is now on the Dakar, which is not too far away, and it won’t be long until we head out there to get things going.”
Joaquim Rodrigues, who has been delivering strong results through the rally registered his best finish so far. Riding steadily in a very fast stage that alternated between dunes and valleys, he finished in fifth place on the final stage which was enough to give him the final spot on the podium.
“I had a failure on my navigation system on the stage, but I am happy that I was able to finish,” Rodrigues said. “A podium in this rally is a great result for the team, and good motivation just before the biggest race, the Dakar. This is my first podium in the championship and the fact that this is the same race where Paulo scored his first Podium in 2012 makes this result that much more special for me. I want to once again wish my teammate Buhler a speedy recovery, and thank my team and fans around the world for their constant support.”
Coming into the final day of the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, Daniel Sanders was lying second in the standings, and enjoyed an advantageous start position to make up time on the leader. Pushing hard, our Aussie star immediately put himself in control of the stage, topping each of the split times on his way through the special.
With all riders having to manage their fuel due to the special not including a refueling zone, Sanders’ pace was such that he ran out first while fighting for the stage, and rally win.
“The last day has obviously been a huge disappointment for me and the team, but that’s racing – I guess you have to take the smooth with the rough,” Sanders lamented. “I started really well and was making good time through the dunes at the beginning of the stage. I realized about halfway through that with no refueling in the stage, and the type of terrain we were racing through, fuel was going to be a problem. So I tried to ease my pace as much as I could. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough, and I eventually ran out.
“Obviously, it’s not the best way to end the rally, especially after such a strong year but I’m pleased with how I’ve ridden, not just in Abu Dhabi, but over the whole season. My pace here has been really strong, I won a stage and did a good job of leading out after that. Again, it’s not the way I wanted to end the season, but as it’s just my first full year in the championship, I’m definitely pleased with how I’ve progressed and raised my level. Although the result here has knocked me back a little, I’ll just take the positives and look ahead to the Dakar in January. I’ve really gelled with the bike – my navigation is always improving, and my pace is definitely there. We’ve got less than two months till Dakar, and I’m going to be ready!”
It’s an unfortunate way to finish the event, but Sanders can look back over his 2021 FIM Cross-Country Rallies World Championship season and take many positives, including several stage wins, three at the Silk Way Rally, plus others in Morocco and Abu Dhabi.
Despite the setback at the final event, Sanders finished a respectable third overall in the final championship standings, not bad for his first full year! And now, with his focus switching to the Dakar Rally next January, Chucky will regroup and come back fighting!
Stage 5 Provisional Classification
1 Adrien Van Beveren (Yamaha) 2:32:06
2 Matthias Walkner (KTM) 2:33:20 + 0:01:14
3 Ross Branch (Yamaha) 2:36:07 + 0:04:01
4 Andrew Short (Yamaha) 2:36:48 + 0:04:42
5 Joaquim Rodrigues (Hero) 2:40:13 + 0:08:07
6 Konrad Dabrowski (KTM) 2:46:22 + 0:14:16
14. Daniel Sanders (GASGAS) 6:00:00
Overall Provisional Classification (after stage 5 Final)
1 Matthias Walkner (KTM) 17:38:40
2 Adrien Van Beveren (Yamaha) 17:43:12 + 0:04:32
3 Joaquim Rodrigues (Hero) 18:14:06 + 0:35:26
4 Aaron Mare (KTM) 19:38:35 + 1:59:55
5 Konrad Dabrowski (KTM) 20:29:01 + 2:50:21
6 Mohammed Al Balooshi (KTM) 20:40:48 + 3:02:08
12. Daniel Sanders (GASGAS) 26:09:10