World Rally-Raid Championship

2024 Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge: Aaron Mare wins RallyGP battle of the Heroes

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Credit: Hero MotoSports

Aaron Marè was going to race a KTM 450 Rally for SRG Motorsports at the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge when Wolfgang Fischer, just days before the start, asked him to rejoin Hero MotoSports in place of the injured Sebastian Bühler. One week later, Marè led the charge to Hero’s maiden World Rally-Raid Championship win.

Marè, who last raced a W2RC round at the 2022 Dakar Rally with Hero (also as an injury substitute), and team-mate Ross Branch were the only entrants in the RallyGP category as many factory teams like Honda and KTM scaled back their rally efforts due to funding or their riders competing somewhere else. Even if this meant a two-man battle in the class, the lower Rally2 category still provided more than enough competition for the duo as eventual Rally2 winner Konrad Dąbrowski and Jean-Loup Lepan kept pace.

Branch, the Dakar runner-up, hoped to be the man to deliver Hero’s first victory and set the stage early by winning the Prologue while Marè finished behind Rally2 riders Michael Docherty and Tobias Ebster. His momentum continued early into Stage #1 before mechanical issues like an engine problem struck, dropping him to sixth and 25:28 behind Marè. Marè, still getting re-acclimated to the Hero 450 Rally, narrowly lost to Docherty, a fellow South African.

An engine change, which comes with a fifteen-minute time penalty, effectively ruined Branch’s hopes of winning the overall barring a dramatic comeback or disaster for Marè. Both split the final four stages as Marè rode off to win by nearly nearly forty minutes. With Branch so far back in the RallyGP overall, Marè’s main focus was on staving off the Rally2 onslaught; Docherty had retired after crashing in Stage #2, leaving Dąbrowski and Lepan in hot pursuit.

Marè led Dąbrowski by ten minutes entering the final day. Dąbrowski finished second in Stage #5, but only beat him by six minutes and Marè held on with a 4:56 margin of victory.

“I can’t thank Hero MotoSports, Waffi (Fischer), and the team enough for getting me up here,” Marè commented. “It was an amazing opportunity, and I made the most of it I was also fortunate to ride along with Ross Branch who came fresh from his Dakar podium, and learnt a lot from him. We were team-mates several years back, and it was a wonderful time spent with him here. I look forward to the upcoming races in the year.”

Branch’s early troubles prevented him from cracking the overall bike podium as Lepan joined Marè and Dąbrowski. Nevertheless, back-to-back runner-up RallyGP finishes are enough to propel him past the absent Dakar winner Ricky Brabec for the overall lead in the championship. Marè also inserted himself into the standings in third ahead of Brabec’s Honda team-mates.

“This was a bittersweet rally for me. After our setback in Stage #1, we managed to gather up the maximum championship points, which was our main objective,” Branch stated. “I got to the finish line safe, and I’m really happy with how the race went. I got to open the stages on several days, won a couple of stages, had a lot of fun and gained some more experience.”

Honda, the only bike manufacturer signed up for the championship, also loses the top spot there and now trails Hero by thirteen. Despite skipping Abu Dhabi, the team hopes to return for the next round, the BP Ultimate Rally-Raid, in April to pick up where they left off and try to reclaim the spot.

“It has been a roller coaster week for us. A last-minute replacement for Sebastian, and then delayed arrival of our bikes from customs,” began Fischer. “However, I am really happy with how Aaron stepped up to the challenge and did a wonderful job all through the race, bringing us this fantastic result Ross was also able to earn the maximum points in the World Championship. I’m extremely happy with what the team has achieved, and look forward to the rest of the season.”

Mohammed Al-Balooshi, the reigning FIM Bajas World Cup champion, was the only other RallyGP rider entered but did not start the race after his bike failed scrutineering. Though sidelined, he remained in the bivouacs and continued to mingle with those taking part as an ambassador for the ADDC.

RallyGP overall results

FinishNumberRiderTeamTimeMargin
144Aaron MarèHero MotoSports16:36:13Leader
246Ross BranchHero MotoSports17:16:08+ 39:55
DNS25Mohammed Al-Balooshi*MX Ride DubaiDNSN/A
* – Not competing in World Rally-Raid Championship

RallyGP stage winners

StageRiderTime
PrologueRoss Branch3:04
Stage #1Aaron Marè3:32:22
Stage #2Aaron Marè3:15:53
Stage #3Ross Branch3:36:39
Stage #4Aaron Marè3:21:41
Stage #5Ross Branch2:32:58

W2RC RallyGP standings

For readability, competitors registered for the championship but have not earned points are excluded.

RankRiderPointsMargin
1Ross Branch50Leader
2Ricky Brabec38– 12
3Aaron Marè25– 25
4Adrien Van Beveren24– 26
5José Ignacio Cornejo20– 30
6Pablo Quintanilla17– 33

Manufacturers’ standings

RankManufacturerPointsMargin
1Hero75Leader
2Honda62– 13
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Justin is not an off-road racer, but he writes about it for The Checkered Flag.
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