World Rally-Raid Championship

2024 Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge: Docherty leads South African 1–2 in Stage 1

3 Mins read
Credit: Bastien Roux/DPPI

With only two riders in the premier RallyGP category at the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, the lower Rally2 was guaranteed to appear on the overall bike podium at every stage. But Michael Docherty was not content with just being on the podium; he wanted to stand on the top.

Docherty lost to RallyGP rider Ross Branch by just two seconds in the Prologue, and he continued to chase Branch for the first half of Tuesday’s Stage #1. However, mechanical issues including an engine issue struck Branch’s Hero 450 Rally, causing him to drop to fourth through the fourth checkpoint.

Upon inheriting the lead, Docherty simply had to stave off fellow South African and Branch’s Hero team-mate Aaron Marè. Marè admitted he made “a few mistakes towards the end in the soft sand and lost a bit of time,” which Docherty capitalised upon to beat him by two minutes and fifty-two seconds.

He is the first Rally2 rider to win a bike stage outright since the World Rally-Raid Championship‘s formation in 2022, and the first to do so in any international rally raid since Mason Klein beat Daniel Sanders by a minute in Stage #4 of the 2021 Rallye du Maroc. Docherty also set the fastest raw time in the fourth stage of last year’s Desafío Ruta 40, but was classified fourth due to three RallyGP riders getting starter’s bonuses.

“It was quite a difficult stage in the beginning. It was very soft sand and a lot of drop offs that were catching me out quite a bit,” said Docherty. “I just had to try and maintain my fuel as much as I could until halfway, because I was using a lot more than I should have. After refuel, I got into a better flow and managed to put in a little bit more of a charge towards the front. I passed a few riders. I think I got into second for opening the stage.

“It was good. I felt good with the bike myself. It feels good to actually finish stage one compared to Dakar earlier this year.”

Taking his hand off the gas to protect his bike, Branch settled for sixth overall as Rally2’s Konrad Dąbrowski, Tobias Ebster, and Jean-Loup Lepan rounded out the top five.

“Barring a small technical issue which slowed me down today, I had a good day out there,” Branch commented. “I’m happy that we’re back at the bivouac in one piece. The mechanics will sort the bike out today, and I’m looking forward to fight again tomorrow morning.”

Oran O’Kelly was the first bike on course, but lost twenty minutes while looking for the waypoint at KM 41 and settled for sixteenth. Quad Prologue winner Kamil Wiśniewski fell back by over an hour on Abdulaziz Ahli due to exhaust damage.

Martin Chalmers and Filip Grot did not finish the stage, the former hurting his ankle after a crash while the latter was hit by bike problems; Justin Gerlach stopped to provide assistance for Chalmers and wait for the helicopter to airlift him out, which got 26:12 sliced from his time. Stephan Preuss‘ bike lost power on the liaison section because the air filter had too much oil, prompting him to use petrol to clean it thrice including two times during the Selective Section; he finished twenty-fifth in Rally2.

Like Branch, Guerlain Chicherit led on the FIA side for much of the early stages before getting stuck. Nasser Al-Attiyah assumed the lead and beat Chicherit’s team-mate Guillaume de Mévius by three minutes.

On the other hand, Al-Attiyah’s Prodrive colleague Cristian Baumgart retired from the rally after flipping on a dune eighty-two kilometres into the stage; his brother Marcos pulled him back onto his wheels before going on to finish fourteenth in Ultimate. Cristina Gutiérrez, Prologue winner on the Challenger side, exited the stage after her engine ran out of coolant after ninety-three kilometres.

Gutiérrez’s Taurus ally Marcelo Gastaldi tried to pick up where she left off, but he dropped to eighth while the Can-Ams of Austin Jones and Rokas Baciuška scored a 1–2 finish. It was just the second stage win for the marque in 2023 after Francisco López Contardo in Stage #5 at Dakar. Laia Sanz salvaged a podium for Taurus, her first in the W2RC, in third.

Another Can-Am of João Ferreira edged out Prologue victor Mansour Al-Helei for the SSV win by 1:08.

Stage #1 winners

Ultimate206Nasser Al-AttiyahNasser Racing3:34:53
Challenger304Austin JonesCan-Am Factory Team3:46:40
SSV402João FerreiraCan-Am Factory Team3:51:48
RallyGP44Aaron MarèHero MotoSports3:32:22
Rally222Michael DochertySRG Motorsports3:29:30
Quad174Abdulaziz AhliAbu Dhabi Team4:28:07
* – Not competing in World Rally-Raid Championship

Leaders after Stage #1

Ultimate206Nasser Al-AttiyahNasser Racing3:34:53
Challenger304Austin JonesCan-Am Factory Team3:46:40
SSV402João FerreiraCan-Am Factory Team3:51:48
RallyGP44Aaron MarèHero MotoSports3:35:34
Rally222Michael DochertySRG Motorsports3:32:36
Quad174Abdulaziz AhliAbu Dhabi Team4:31:49
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Justin is not an off-road racer, but he writes about it for The Checkered Flag.
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