All change at the top, except Coma's Bike lead
500km of off-roading is utterly incomprehensible for those of us reading this from the comfort of our living room couches or office swivel chairs, yet the leading drivers tackled the changing conditions with such perfection that near the end they were within just a few minutes of each other.
One the longest stage of the event so far they raced for over five hours through a maze of old mining access roads that tested the skill of the co-drivers, to featureless expanses of Chile's interior where the landmarks were few and far between to the finish after the high rolling dunes. But then came an uncharacteristic mistake from the normally infallible Sainz... he made a bad approach to the crest of a dune, beached and had to dig himself out to continue. Maybe it was the pressure of knowing that his Qatari team-mate was in his element in the soft sand but almost unbelievably in the space of just 5km he made did the same again. Not only did Al-Attiyah sneak through and take the stage win in the last meters, he also snatched the lead of the rally. And neither does he think that it's just a temporary change at the top. "I can control the race now," he said confidently. "We were really careful from the beginning. Carlos caught up with us very quickly. It was a difficult stage because I was opening all the way, but the dunes are my favourite terrain and I was really pushing to the limit. But I'm happy to win the stage and take the lead in the general standings."
Carlos, no stranger of course to the highs and lows of motorsport in his illustrious career, was quietly philosophical. "I hope that today will have been our worst day on the Dakar. Sometimes everything's fine, other times it's not as good. We'll just have to keep on going. We need to attack. On a rally each stage is long and hard. We'll see what happens. Obviously, I've lost some time, but the rally isn't over, there are still other stages left."
While it might have been a bad stage for their unofficial number one driver, for VW in general it was a positive day. Peterhansel was slowed, not by punctures this time, but by sever overheating issues which cost him an hour as he limped through the latter part of the stage. It wasn't only his engine that went up in steam... so did any realistic hopes of victory. And Miller is now only an hour behind threatening to make a VW 1,2,3 and 4 should any mechanical issues reappear on the BMW. In fact it has been a torrid couple of days for the X-Raid team. After having lost Chicherit's Mini in a testing accident on the rest day and Terravova rolling out yesterday, now it was Holowczyz's turn to suffer. Severe electric gremlins stopped him first and then problems with the power steering had to be fixed mid-stage before they could continue, dropping the Pole down to 7th overall, some 10 minutes behind the Brazilian pairing of Spinelli and Haddad.
Chargin is a legend, as his seven victories prove, and today he gave a faultless demonstration of his truck-driving master craft, blowing his rivals away and dominantly retaking the lead. Put his time next to the car class and he would have been 5th, just behind the VWs and 4 minutes faster than the bike winner Coma... in a vehicle some 50 times heavier than the KTM. Double stage winner Ales Loprais had no answer and suddenly finds himself half an hour behind.
Bike leader Coma edged out his advantage a little further today but fellow rider Despres was less then impressed with his Spanish rival's conduct. Coma was happy to sit behind and let Despres navigate the way knowing that even if they finished together over the line he'd be guaranteed a two minute victory thanks to his later staring position. "Some riders stick to your back wheel like leeches!" he seethed in reference to Coma, but as Al- Attiyah said controlling the event is the advantage of the leader. Coma himself wasn't at all perturbed by anyone else's comments. "It was a hard stage and very long with plenty of mileage and dunes," he said. "With Cyril and Chaleco we all rode together. We took turns to open the way, at a very fast pace too. I was happy about the pace today. It was a good stage after a complicated one yesterday. But in the end, everything turned out fine. I'm glad, because it was a 500-km special. That's a hell of a lot".
It now looks increasingly likely that victory will go one of three ways, two time winner Coma, three time winner Depres and Francisco Lopez. No one other than Coma or Depres have one the Dakar since 2005.
After today's 500km roll of the dice Patronelli finds himself back in the lead as a beneficiary of the big problems that befell local rider Tomas Maffeis. Such is the sheer length of the stage that news of what has happened to the former leader has not reached the press, but the timesheets tell a clearer story. Patronelli now has a cushion of nearly an hour over Sebastian Halpern.
Tomorrow is the last stage in Chile, a loop around the barren heart of the Atacama before the whole Dakar entourage crosses the majestic Andes back into Argentina where two of the rally's longest tests await. There may be new leaders in three of the classes tonight, but it's a long way from being over yet.