TOYOTA GAZOO Racing South Africa’s (TGRSA)’s Henk Lategan and co-driver, Brett Cummings, finished the opening stage of the 2023 Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge in day in 3rd place, just 6min 18sec behind the stage winners – teammates Nasser Al-Attiyah and co-driver, Mathieu Baumel.

The opening stage of the event featured a timed section of 242km, starting from the pre-race bivouac at Al Dannah City. First up was a short liaison of 59km before a dune-strewn stage that was described by the organisers as “challenging”. Broken dunes, sandy tracks and bright sunlight that made it difficult to spot dangers on the route added to the challenge of the day.

TGR’s Nasser and Mathieu made the most of their tenth position on the road, using this as a platform from which to attack right from the outset. The GR DKR Hilux T1+ crew reported a perfectly clean run, with the car performing as expected. They reached the finish of the stage in a time of 3hr 13min 36sec, 6min 5sec ahead of Yazeed Al Rajhi and co-driver Timo Gottschalk in a privately entered Toyota Hilux T1+. The stage win has given Nasser and Mathieu 5 points towards their W2RC campaign, which means they are now in the lead of the title fight.

Henk and Brett are not competing in the W2RC, and are racing in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge as a once-off, building experience in their quest to improve on their 5th-place finish at this year’s Dakar Rally. The South African pairing posted the 7th-fastest time during qualifying, started the stage as the 5th car on the road, and posted the third-fastest time for Stage 1. They spent most of the day firmly in second place, but lost time when they got stuck in soft sand near the end of the stage, relinquishing their position to Yazeed in the process. Henk and Brett were just 13sec adrift of second place in the end and will be looking to improve on this during Stage 2.

“We had a really nice start to the event,” said Lategan from the bivouac. “At first, we had no idea how we were doing, as it was all-new terrain for us. There were some difficult dunes, and navigation was quite tricky at times. But overall, we had a clean stage with no big moments, though we did lose a little bit of time right at the end of the stage. Unfortunately, the power steering also stopped working after we recovered the car, and we had to drive the last few kilometres without power assistance.”

Stage 2 of the 2023 Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge will see the crews complete a road section of 106km from the bivouac at Qasr Al Sarab, before taking on a timed section of 257km, which will bring them back to the bivouac. The terrain is again expected to consist largely of dunes, with sections of sandy tracks in between. The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge features five stages, and the event will draw to a close on Friday, 3 March.