The prestigious rally race Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge took place in the United Arab Emirates Apr 3-10. Kazakhstan’s Astana Dakar racing teams took on the challenge by winning the fourth leg of the five-day race for the first time in club’s history and doing well overall.
Three Kazakh teams participated in the Desert Challenge: Bauyrzhan Issabayev/Vladimir Demyanenko in Astana-Toyota, Denis Berezovskiy/Ignat Falkov, Astana-Nissan and Aidyn Rakhimbayev/Anton Nikolayev in Astana-BMW Mini. It was Rakhimbayev and Nikolayev who won Stage Four in Abu Dhabi on April 9 for the first time in their career in Dakar rally racing, ahead of some of the world’s renowned names like Nani Roma, the winner of Dakar 2014.
“It was a hot and dynamic day,” Rakhimbayev wrote in his Facebook account.
“At last, I managed to ‘tame’ our MINI,” he said. “The wild, unbridled stallion – powerful with quite a character!”
The Kazakh pilot signed with MINI right after Dakar 2014 earlier this year and only had four days prior to Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge to learn to “speak to the MINI in its language” as he explained in his posts.
The Astana Team crew started ninth on the day of the fourth leg of the Desert Challenge and after only 42 kilometres was literally hanging by the bumper of their team mate the Dutch Erik Van Loon, who in turn was waiting for the Czech Miroslav Zapletal on H3 Hummer to err to overtake him. The Dutch got so pre-occupied with his target that allowed Rakhimbayev and his co-pilot Anton Nikolaev too close and eventually let them slip past him.
“The first ten cars start with a gap of two minutes, the rest with one minute,” Rakhimbayev explained. “We waited for Van Loon to overtake Zapletal, once he did, we attacked him, he certainly didn’t expect that!”
Rakhimbayev explained that usually the overtaken car doesn’t chase the obviously faster car with at least a two minute faster pace. Van Loon, however, is known for not letting go easily and the two got into an intense “200 kilometre clash of MINIs”, as Rakhimbayev put it.
“Over the remaining 200 kilometres along the toughest route, with endless steep dunes and sand traps, we were in a mad race. Positions changed every 20-30 kilometres, [we] used every chance and mistake to overtake and in a mad pace overtook other cars, and only the Euronews helicopter witnessed this madness,” Rakhimbayev wrote.
Approaching the finish line, the Astana team crew was hoping to finish at least second or third, however, and was pleasantly surprised to learn from one of the technical commission officers about their victory. “Congratulations, perfect, you are the first!” he told them smiling.
The All-Russian crew of Vladimir Vasilyev/Konstantin Zhiltsov, also in a MINI, finished second, 50 seconds behind the Astana team and Van Loon eventually finished third.
“We have the first place today,” Rakhimbayev said after the race. “We are proud that today we have the leading position. I think it is a very good result. This is my first time, when during the World Cup, we take first place at one of the stages,” he said.
The long-awaited stage win spurred attention to Rakhimbayev and his success couldn’t go overlooked by his fellow racers.
“I remember him from last Dakar. Each time he improves his prowess,” Roma said. “As for Astana Team, I have heard a lot about it in cycling and not motorsport. Your team races in Tour De France. I really like the sport. And your cyclist Alexandre Vinovourov is one of the best in the world,” Roma underlined.
Astana Motorsports manager Artur Ardavichus, Dakar 2012 bronze medallist, also commented on the occasion.
“Today in our camp and at the media centre, everybody was talking about the presidential sports club being first in ‘super-production’ category,” Ardavichus said. “Aidyn Rakhimbayev gave us the club’s first win and climbed even higher in the standings. This is the first time ever that one country and one club were on a podium, Rakhimbayev in T1 and Berezovskiy in T2. Go forward, Astana, and good job, guys!”
Overall, the Kazakhstan-Russian Rakhimbayev-Nikolayev team finished the race in the 10th position, almost four hours behind the Vasilyev-Zhiltsov team which also drove MINI ALL4 Racing.
The Astana Team is now readying for the next world cup race, the Sealine Cross Country Rally, in Qatar on Apr. 20-25, where they will take on their new rivals in top 10, only this time as the world cup contenders.