(MENAFN - The Peninsula) Qatar's Nasser Saleh Al Attiyah, Spaniard Joan Barreda and home hope Mohammed Abu Issa stole the limelight by setting the fastest times in the third 411.76km selective section of the Sealine Cross-Country Rally through the Qatar desert yesterday.
Al Attiyah duly extended his advantage to 39min 38sec in the car category, Honda rider Barreda managed to slip 1min 19sec ahead of KTM's Marc Coma in the motorcycle section and Qatar's Abu Issa increased his lead in the quads after Poland's Rafal Sonik hit trouble.
Al Attiyah had no fear of opening the stage for the cars and he and French navigator Matthieu Baumel controlled their pace masterfully to record a third successive stage win, despite erring on the side of caution at a tricky navigational point.
Brazilians Reinaldo Varela and Gustavo Gugelmin were second in an Overdrive Toyota Hilux and the third quickest time for Mini driver Vladimir Vasilyev enabled the Russian to snatch second overall after Saudi Arabia's Yazeed Al-Rajhi hit trouble.
"It was a good day and good navigation," said Al Attiyah. "But there was one place where Matthieu and I were not sure and we decided to stop and make sure we had the correct track. Maybe it cost us around nine minutes, because there was a track to the left and it was not easy at all."
Al-Rajhi was carrying three spare tyres in his Toyota and he punctured for a fourth time before the dunes at the end of the stage and tried to finish on the rim.
He tried to block the rear differential to prevent excess wear, but the resultant damage broke the rear axle and the Saudi was stranded at the foot of the dunes near the finish with a hefty amount of time penalties to follow.
Barreda caught overall leader Coma early in the day's selective section and the leading group of four motorcycle riders reached the finish together, with Barreda clocking the quickest time of 4hr 53min 43sec to take an unofficial lead of 1min 19sec from Coma.
"The strategy at the start looked to be working well for Paolo (Goncalves) and Marc," said Barreda. "But I won the first stage and gained that important minute. Now I have the lead and Marc will play catch up tomorrow and then I will have to do the same on Friday. It's looking good for Honda at the moment.
"There was a place today, after the refuelling, where all six of us took the wrong track and (Jordi) Viladoms and Paolo found the right way. Marc and I were behind for about two minutes but we caught up again. It was not easy."
Sonik caught and passed Abu Issa before the first passage control in the battle for the quad category, but the Qatari managed to stay with the Pole and surged through to take the stage win, despite two punctures, when Sonik suffered his own problems.
"Very happy in the end, but I had a flat tyre before the refuel and Rafal managed to get away when I changed it," said Abu Issa, who now leads by over 30 minutes heading into the last two days. "Then, I think he must have had a navigational problem because I did not see him. I rode alone, had another flat tyre after 360km, but I managed to complete the stage and now I have a good lead."
The third and longest selective section of the event, at 411.76km, included four passage controls at 109.54km, 190.77km, 296.73km and 355.34km and began with a series of dune crossings near the sea, before heading south towards the Inland Sea and then west towards the opposite coast.
The route then headed north and east to form a giant loop of the south of the country and finished over another series of dunes near Sealine.
Fifteen motorcycles, three quads and 19 cars took the start; Qatar's Jamal Fakhroo had been treated for dehydration on Tuesday and retired, but Denis Berezovskiy repaired an engine problem and was able to continue.
Stage two winner Sam Sunderland led the way on a factory KTM, although the Briton was fully aware that his rivals would catch him and he would lose the two-minute head start. Coma took a 56-second lead over Barreda into the special although the Honda rider was the quickest at PC1 after catching Coma and he snatched the overall rally lead.
Goncalves had caught Sunderland as well and was running close behind the Briton. Sonik caught and passed Abu Issa and regained 2min 02sec in the quad battle, but UAE's Mohammed Al-Balooshi lost his way slightly and dropped 25 minutes to the leading riders.
Correct tyre pressures were critical for the opening kilometres through the dunes for the cars, as Al Attiyah set out to defend a 24min 29sec overall lead. He reached PC1 2min 48sec in front of Al-Rajhi, who had managed to pass Martin Kaczmarski. Krzysztof Holowczyc was running second quickest in the stage.
Barreda continued to lead the bikes at Abu Shareb (PC2) and Abu Issa stayed on the tail of Sonik to maintain his overall lead in the quads.
Qatar's Adel Hussein retired his quad before PC2 with chain problems and Pole Maciej Berdysz (Honda) crashed while riding with Indian rider CS Santosh and race officials sent a medical team to the incident as a precaution. Aussie Stuart Charleston also fell off his Aprilia, broke a finger and injured his wrist. "This was just not my rally," said Hussein. "GPS and road book problems on the first two days and then I broke the rear axle bearing and the chain came off. I tried to repair it, but it broke again and I fear that I don't have a spare to continue tomorrow."