BATTLE FOR POSITIONS HOTS UP IN AUSTRALASIAN SAFARI
Mitsubishi Pajero driver, Steve Riley, continues to lead the Auto category of the Australasian Safari, increasing his lead by nearly 13 minutes on the final stage of Leg 5.
The Victorian took the lead on the very first stage out of Kalgoorlie last Saturday, and has not been headed since.
Fellow Victorian, Des Harrington, in a Nissan Patrol, is now over 17 minutes behind Riley, but getting lost late in the day has put the Isuzu of Bruce Garland within 15 minutes of him.
In the motorbike section of Australia's toughest motorsport challenge, Queenslander Rod Faggotter is making a charge for the lead.
Nearly 30 minutes in arrears as teams left Meekatharra this morning, Faggotter, riding a Yamaha WR450F, won three of today's four stages and now trails event leader, Ben Grabham, by just 18 minutes.
The second factory Honda of Damian Grabham is now nearly 10 minutes behind Faggotter in third place, while Warren Strange has maintained his fourth position.
Leaving the outback mining town of Meekatharra this morning, the 600 kilometre course took competitors south west towards Mt Magnet, with four sections totalling over 470 competitive kilometres.
Road conditions were again dry and dusty, with fast, open sections interspersed with rough and rocky tracks that provided a real challenge to both competitors and their vehicles.
Riley's car is literally being held together with tape, with every panel dented and the windscreen broken. He had the power steering fail today, and had to give the car a wheel alignment after the first two stages, but remains happy with his lead.
"We got caught in a lot of rain on the final stage today, but we've had a pretty good time of it overall," he explained. "The car is just holding together, and we're now referring to it as the 'battle scarred galactic-car'!"
Harrington lost over 10 minutes on the final stage, allowing Garland to close the gap, but the Isuzu driver wasn't without his problems either, suffering two punctures.
"We had a frustrating time early in the race, but we're making up ground now," he said. "It's not over till the fat lady sings. Anything could go wrong on the final two days."
The diesel Isuzu of Garland is using between 80 and 100 litres of fuel less than its petrol rivals each day.
There's still all to play for in the bike section as well. After crashing his bike on day three of the 4400 kilometre marathon, Rod Faggotter is riding with a balaclava under his helmet to protect his injured face from dirt and dust, but was obviously happy with his day.
"The bike is going awesome," he said on arrival in Mt Magnet. "I stayed on the bike today and had no real dramas. After tomorrow everything should have sorted itself out for the run into Perth on Saturday."
Leader Grabham was happy, but certainly isn't getting carried away with the lead that he's held since the start of the seven-day event.
"I was cruising along today," he said. "The navigation was quite tricky, but we're getting closer to the end, which is good to know."
Tricky navigation, particularly on the final 160 kilometre stage, troubled most crews, including Damian Grabham, who dropped to third during the day.
In fourth place, Warren Strange battled along but got to the end relatively unscathed.
"It was a difficult navigation day, and my strategy was to take it easy. I relied on the instructions being accurate and paid full attention to them, rather than on the speed I was riding," Strange explained. "In some sections there seemed to be no track at all. My bike has been fantastic, and I'm looking forward to tomorrow."
With two days of the Australasian Safari still to run, Ben Grabham looks set for back-to-back victories in the motorcycle section, however with more than 500 kilometres of competitive stages still to come, the Bathurst (NSW) rider knows that anything can happen.
AFL legend, Tony Lockett, is still riding strongly on his debut in the Safari. Riding a Honda, Lockett is in 24th place.
There was drama in the Quad bike category. South African, Vicus Vandeventer, had dominated since the start on Saturday, but crashed heavily on stage 19, breaking his leg.
Vandeventer held a 90 minute lead before then, but South Australian, John Maragozidis, on a Polaris Outlaw IRS, now has his sights set on the inaugural Quad bike victory. He leads Darrell Knight (CAN AM) by nearly three hours.
Crews spend tonight in Mt Magnet, before heading south west to the coastal town of Geraldton tomorrow, before the finish in Perth on Saturday afternoon.