Ridin’ That Roller Coaster
Americans See Highs and Lows Across the Sand at the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge
Words by Anastasia Leniova
Photos by MCH Photography, Red Bull Content Pool & Can-Am Factory South Racing
This time, UTV Sport Mag’s contributor observed the race from a sweep car, helping bikes and cars stuck in the tricky dunes of the UAE desert
The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, the second stage of the 2022 FIA World Rally-Raid Championship (W2RC) just ended, with the challenging sand sections upholding its reputation as a tough roadbook rally.
It was a return to the race’s usual slot in the schedule. Before its 2009 name change, this was the UAE Marlboro Desert Challenge since its founding in the Emirates in 1991. Normally, this event runs in late winter, but COVID-19 meant a delay until November for 2021. This year, it was back where it belonged, running March 6th-10th.
The event started on Yas Island in UAE, with its bivouac at the Formula 1 circuit and racers settled in the area’s hotels. Administrative checks in the morning, chilling by the pool under the palm trees in the afternoon—sounds like a good start! But then everything moved to the desert for five days of racing, and life started to get difficult for racers and the organization.
It doesn’t make sense to describe every stage’s terrain separately—it’s all sand, sand, and even more sand, and it’s all tricky. When you read the roadbook’s stage description in the morning, you see 125-185 miles of a special stage, consisting of 48 percent sand and 48 percent dunes. You won’t see that much sand in any other rally.
The Liwa desert terrain is diverse and deceitful, with all types of sand and Level 1, Level 2 and even massive Level 3 dunes. There are small, soft white dunes hiding the occasional bowl waiting to trap racers. There are huge red dunes with unexpected drop-offs that are several stories high. There are orange dunes, which are something in-between, containing a blend of hazards. You must stay focused and concentrated all the time, because any mistake may cost you everything.
Then, add in the heat, with temperatures over 100F—better not break down or get stuck! If that’s not enough, the undulating dunes will cause car-sickness for even experienced drivers and co-pilots, requiring them to take motion-sickness pills. On top of all this fun, there’s also the risk of hitting a camel. At one point, our sweep team removed a group of 20 strolling animals from the route just several minutes before the cars blasted through, a close call indeed.
However, the rally does have some smart organization. Every day you return to the same bivouac and don’t have to move your home base. Liaisons aren’t longer than 100 miles a day, and once again, there is an extremely nice hotel with a huge outdoor swimming pool surrounded by the dunes.
But even in this oasis, the crews and marshals sleep in conditioned containers and tents at the bivouac, enduring the dust clouds as the cars start out.
In 2022, three drivers represented the US at this rally: Dakar winner and last year’s Abu Dhabi winner Austin Jones in T4, along with Red Bull Junior Team young talents Seth Quintero and Mitch Guthrie in T3.
Eight teams raced the T4/SSV category this year. Polish teams rented two Polaris RZR Pro XP Turbos, with newbie Malgorzata Golda joining experienced bike/T1 racer Marek Dabrowski. On the other team, Robert Szusztkowski drove with Artur Gryszczyk. The other six teams drove Can-Am Maverick XRS Turbos.
American Austin Jones, the Polish Goczal brothers and young Lithuanian Rokas Baciuska continued their battle that started at Dakar this year. Jones won the Rally-Raid World Cup 2021 claiming victory at three of the four stages, and he started 2022 by winning his category at the Dakar Rally. Now he aims to repeat last year’s success and win the FIA award again, as it grows from Cup to Championship status. He also hopes to win every round in the series this year, as he shared in the interview between the stages.
“I like it a lot, staying in hotels is nice, instead of being out in the desert in the middle of nowhere. The dunes are very nice but they are scary, all the drops that they have. Ten of them can be nice and round and then after eleventh—a thirty-foot drop,” Jones said. “Last year I didn’t know what to expect and we washed up a couple of them on the first day. Then I started to understand how it works here, and adapted my driving style.”
Racing against the same competitors as the year before, Jones said he was expecting another tough scrap in the 2022 event, training in the desert to prepare ahead of Abu Dhabi.
“This is a very hard race, extremely technical with the dunes and really treacherous: there are a lot of things that are coming to get you that you don’t really see out there,” he said. “A lot of fast guys are here this year in the championship, lots of names that are really quick; it’s going to be a real battle all year for sure.”
It takes a lot of hard work for an American to race in Abu-Dhabi. The logistics are complicated, even before factoring in the 12-hour time difference and jet lag. All this didn’t stop Jones from winning the Desert Challenge last year, in his first attempt. That’s why I couldn’t believe what I heard on the radio during the first stage of this year’s race: “Sweep 3, crew #401 on a standstill.” As we arrived on the scene, Austin and Gustavo were fixing the car and looking disappointed.
Their hopes for a repeat win were dashed after electrical issues took them out of contention. The first racing day is always hard, and #401 joined two other crews unable to complete the stage. They continued the race with a 16-hour time penalty each, which was too much to hope for a podium, even with a small number of competitors.
“We were going down the road, everything was good, then the car came to a stop. We set up there, we changed everything we possibly could, got it back running again, and spent a lot of time there in the desert. Finally ended up here at the bivouac, so this race is kind of a smoke for us. Now we’ll try to score some points and just have fun in Abu-Dhabi,” Jones said in a poolside interview after the day’s racing.
Eventually, Jones said, the team diagnosed the problem as an internal engine sensor taken out by pieces of a broken gear, something they’d never seen before. Although he was disappointed, Jones said it could have been worse, if the problem had happened earlier.
“It was the same car that I used for Dakar,” he said. “If Dakar would’ve been 200 kilometers longer, it would’ve happened at Dakar. As bad as it is, I’m glad that it happened here, not on the last day of Dakar because that would’ve been heartbreaking. It sucks but it happens, it’s racing.”
With the American out of contention for the stage victory, the Goczal brothers once again took two-thirds of the podium space, with Lithuanian Baciuska between them in second place. After having the car repaired, however, Jones went on and scored second place on the second day of the race and eventually won the stage on Day 3.
“We won by ten seconds, it was a tiny difference. We will try to push tomorrow and after tomorrow, we need to score the points for the championship,” said Jones’s co-driver, Gustavo Gugelmin.
Because it’s so close to the Dakar Rally, the logistics of racing Abu Dhabi are difficult, and that meant a small field of racers in the T-4 class. With more cars and competition in coming rounds, Gugelmin and Jones wanted to run up their score while they could, even as their rivals picked up speed. But despite Jones’ fast driving, Marek and Michal Goczal headed the podium at the end of Stage 3, followed once again by Rokas Baciuska, who had problems with a front driveshaft and a broken rear arm, but managed to stay in the top three.
As the ADDC entered its penultimate stage, organizers noted the unusually high temperature of 104F-111F, well above normal. Cars and SSVs normally started around 10 a.m., and with the stage lasting three to four hours, most vehicles would hit the dunes in the hottest time of the day.
At the end of the stage, Jones was third, Marek Goczal second, and Michal Goczal first on the day. His co-driver said it has been a tough stage, with the engine running hot—they’d been worried about breaking down in the desert, so they were happy to finish without any mechanical trouble and some points in hand. That set them up for a potential jump in the standings on Stage 5.
“Tomorrow is a good day to score more points. I know that the leader is leading with around a half-hour lead, so maybe he’ll just try to conserve,” he said. “So maybe tomorrow will be a good day to try and win, because everyone will try to preserve their positions and there’s nothing for me to lose.”
But rally-raids aren’t just about speed, and the Abu-Dhabi Desert Challenge is well-known for last-day drama. The final 209-kilometer stage is shorter than the others, and not the most difficult one, but tensions built to their highest point. While Marek Goczal secured the lead and won the race with a gap of more than 20 minutes, the difference between Michal Goczal and Rocas Baciuska was just 13 seconds after four days of the race! As the younger Goczal brother tried to make up on Baciuska and take second on the podium, his engine overheated, making him stop at Kilometer 90. Baciuska finished in cruising mode.
Having completely recovered after the blow on Stage 1, Austin Jones won his second stage in a rally and thought he’d bagged third overall. Then, Dubai-based Polish rookie Malgorzata Golda arrived at the finish line and changed the equation, pushing Jones to fourth overall. Golda had never won a stage podium before, but she’d avoided serious penalties and put in steady, consistent results, and it paid off in the end.
At the race’s end, Jones managed to preserve his championship lead despite the mechanical failure and fierce attacks from his Polish and Lithuanian rivals. Now, his 119 points are only a single pip ahead of Marek Goczal. With 107 points, Baciuska is third. Going forward, Jones will attempt to resume his victory marathon with a win in Morocco. That’s the only World Cup stage where he hasn’t won yet, with crashes and technical failures derailing his previous efforts.
T4 top five overall results
1 #403 Goczal (POL)/ Laskawiec (POL), COBANT-ENERGYLANDIA RALLY TEAM
2 #402 Baciuska (LTU)/ Mena (ESP), SOUTH RACING CAN-AM
3 #408 Malgorzata Gołda (POL)/ Marek Dabrowski (POL), MALGORZATA GOLDA
4 #401 Jones (USA)/ Gugelmin (BRA), CAN-AM FACTORY SOUTH RACING
5 #405 Lukas Hose Del Rio Alamas (CHL)/ Alvaro Juan Leon Quintanilla (CHL), SOUTH RACING CAN-AM
Twelve Lightweight Prototype T3 crews entered the competition, including eight teams from the W2RC championship.
At first, there were four OT3s, six Can-Am’s, a Zephyr and an EVO 3. However, the UAE driver in the EVO 3 didn’t pass technical control and had to skip, and Russian participants were not able to join the race because of the new sanctions and FIA requirements they could not meet.
The race’s first two days were intense, with heartbreaking bad luck for some competitors. The OT3 squads saw massive ups and downs. Guillaume de Mevius, who wanted to recover in the championship after withdrawal from Dakar, started by winning the first stage, but then he was unable to finish the second day and left the race later.
Young American Seth Quintero, who set a record of T3 stage victories in the Dakar this year, lost a half-hour fixing a broken stabilizer bar. Then, as our sweep car was driving though the second half of the first stage, we saw the crew of #309 in trouble. American Mitch Guthrie and his Norwegian co-driver Ola Floene were stuck in the dunes. Their OT3’s rear drive shaft was broken, with only the less-powerful front drive functional. That left them without sufficient power to battle their way out of the dunes. We towed them out to solid gravel, and they were able to proceed from there.
Unfortunately, Guthrie’s car didn’t complete the stage; he started the next day, but due to mechanical issues wasn’t able to complete that day as well. He didn’t start on the third day because of engine problems, and withdrew. It’s been a tough year for the team, as Guthrie also missed the 2022 Dakar because of COVID-19.
On the first day, De Mevius won, followed by the Chilean Dakar winner ‘Chaleco’ Lopez in a Can-Am and Spaniard Christina Gutierrez in an OT3 from the Red Bull Junior team. Chaleco snatched the victory on the second day, followed by Quintero and Gutierrez. With half the team gone, OT3-Red Bull athletes continued into the third day of the race in second and third places overall.
In the middle of fierce competition for championship points and the lightweight car win, Lopez suffered a mechanical problem in the first half of the third stage. He lost almost half an hour fixing the driveshaft but still managed to retain overall leadership, even though his gap from Christina went from 21 minutes to 1 minute, 21 seconds. Day 3 went well for Quintero, who won the stage and reinforced his spot in third overall, despite the setback from the first day.
The fourth racing day saw no changes in the leading trio of Lopez-Gutierrez-Quintero, but only two of these names landed on the stage podium. After yesterday’s high, Quintero had another half-hour stop due to a technical, landing him ninth on the day. Chilean racer Hernan Garces Echeverria won third place on the stage.
Unlike the T4 category, the final stage didn’t change the standings. Gutierrez tried hard to reduce her eight-minute gap with Chaleco Lopez, and won her first stage during the race, but this wasn’t enough. The duel between the Dakar winner and the 2021 World Cup champion once again turned to the Chilean driver’s advantage. Seth Quintero arrived third on the last day of the race and picked up his first-ever World Rally-Raid Championship overall podium result. After two of five stages of the World Rally-Raid Championship, ‘Chaleco’ remains leader (141 points) ahead of Cristina (116 points) and Seth (97th points).
T3 top five overall results
1 #301 Lopez Contardo (CHL)/ Latrach Vinagre (CHL), EKS – SOUTH RACING
2 #302 Gutierrez (ESP)/ Cazalet (FRA), RED BULL OFF-ROAD TEAM USA
3 #303 Quintero (USA)/ Zenz (DEU), RED BULL OFF-ROAD JUNIOR TEAM USA
4 #311 Conrad Rautenbach (ZWE)/ Wouter Rosegaar (NLD), SOUTH RACING MIDDLE EAST
5 #307 Annett Fischer (DEU)/ Annie Seel (SWE), ANNETT FISCHER
The battle for the World Champion titles in T3 and T4 is in full swing, with all competitors still capable of claiming victory. Of the W2RC stages ahead, the Kazakhstan rally is now most likely to be postponed until September. The Andalucía Rally runs in June and Rally du Maroc will end the season in October.