The UAE's defending champion Khaled Al Qassimi suffered a major setback in his Abu Dhabi Racing Team 3008 DKR, losing 30 minutes because of a broken drive shaft.
While he retained third place overall, he now lies more than 45 minutes off the lead.
Frenchman Luc Alphand stole the show while Czech driver Martin Prokop retained his overnight cars lead in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge powered by Nissan today as Sam Sunderland made a big move towards a second successive bikes title.
After gearbox problems had ruined his victory prospects 24 hours earlier, Alphand recovered to win the 281-km Al Ain Water Stage with 3 mins 42 secs to spare alongside German co-driver Andreas Schultz in a John Cooper Works Buggy.
Partnered by David Pabiska in a Ford F-150 Evo, overnight leader Prokop was third fastest on the day to finish the leg with a reduced advantage of 8 mins 40.2 secs from Poland's Jakub Przygonski and Belgian co-driver Tom Colsoul, second quickest on the day in a Mini John Cooper.
Dubai-based Sunderland, meanwhile, dominated on the bikes, winning the stage by just over six minutes from KTM team-mate Matthias Walkner to take a 7 mins 34 secs overall lead from the Austrian rider who succeeded him as Dakar Rally champion just over two months ago.
Argentinian Kevin Benavides on a Honda was third fastest today to finish the leg another 2 mins 14 secs further adrift, just ahead of overnight leader Pablo Quintanilla in fourth on his Husqvarna. Honda riders Paulo Goncalves from Portugal and American Ricky Brabec completed the top six.
The rally ended abruptly for top UAE rider Mohammed Al Balooshi who had to be transferred by helicopter to hospital for a scan after crashing on the stage. The recent Dubai International Baja winner was clearly shaken, but not seriously injured.
In the battle of the bikes, Quintanilla clearly had a tough time opening the stage, and by the first checkpoint his 1 min 8 secs overnight lead had virtually been wiped out by Sunderland who immediately began pulling away. It was the most emphatic way to show that he has fully recovered after injuring his back in Peru while defending his Dakar Rally title in January.
"This was another day when we saw just how tough the Desert Challenge can be", said Mohammed Ben Sulayem, President of the Automobile and Touring Club of the UAE and Emirates Motorsport Federation. "You can never take anything for granted in this rally, but at the same time it can be very rewarding."
Al Qassimi completed the stage to say: "We had a broken drive shaft 30kms and we had to stop for 30mins. There were lots of big, scary dunes today."
Al Helei, who has not missed an edition of the desert challenge since its start in 1991, said: "That was a good day - I really enjoyed it. We had a few problems with the clutch slipping. But I drove well and had a good time."
Taking place under the patronage of H.H. Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Ruler's Representative in Al Dafrah Region, the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge is forms the third round of the 2018 FIA World Cup for Cross Country Rallies for cars and buggies and the opening round of this year's FIM Cross Country Rallies World Championship for bikes and quads.
The Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge Powered by Nissan is supported by Al Dafrah Region Municipality, Abu Dhabi Municipality, the UAE Army, Abu Dhabi Police, Nissan Middle East, ADNOC, Abu Dhabi Aviation, Al-Ain Water, National Ambulance Service, Tadweer, Yas Marina Circuit and the Qasr Al-Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara.
Provisional leading positions after Al Ain Water Stage 3
- Martin Prokop / David Pabiska (CZE / CZE) / Ford F-150 Evo 11:01:12.9Â Â
- Jakub Przygonski / Tom Colsoul (POL / BEL) / Mini John Cooper 11:09:53.1
- Khalid Al Qassimi / Xavier Panseri (ARE /FRA) / Peugeot 3008 DKR 11:47:07.1Â Â
- Vladimir Vasilyev / K,Zhiltsov (RUS / RUS) / Mini Cooper Countryman 11:47:43.5
- Cyril Despres / Steve Ravussin (FRA / CHE) Buggy Ford 2WD 12:38:52.5
- Yahya Al Helei / Khalid Alkendi (ARE / ARE) / Nissan Pick Up 12:51:56.8
- Stephan Schott / Paulo Fiuza (DEU / POR) / Mini John Cooper 13:14:21.7
- Terence Marsh / Riaan Greyling (ZAF / ZAF) / Nissan Navara 13:43:44.6
- Khaled AlFeraihi / Osama Alsanad (SAU / SAU) / Nissan Patrol Pick Up 13:47:12.5
- Jose-Luis Pena Campo / Rafel Tornabell (ESP / ESP) / Polaris RZR 1000 14:22:06.4
- Sam Sunderland (ARE) / KTM 450 10:35:19
- Matthias Walkner (AUT) / KTM 450 10:42:53
- Kevin Benavides (ARG) / Honda CRF 450 10:45:07.
- Pablo Quintanilla (CHL) / Husqvarna 450 10:46:13
- Paulo Goncalves (POR) / Honda CRF 450 10:57:30
- Ricky Brabec (USA) / Honda CRF 450 10:57:56
- Jose Ignacio Cornejo F (CHL) / Honda CRF 450 11:08:31
- Toby Price (AUS) / KTM 450 11:14:02
- Michael Metge (FRA) / Honda CRF 450 11:14:56
- David McBride (ARE) 12:19:19