After the punishment of Stage 7 and the cancellation of Stage 8, today's special from Tidjikja to Atar was a refreshing change: high speed across dunes, with not a stalk of the dreaded camel grass in sight, and a finish crossing the immense and mythical Chinguetti erg.
"We tried to maintain a reasonable pace and had a flat tire," Alphand recounted. "Then we stopped to deflate the tires for the dunes and had a second puncture. Maybe the tire pressure was too low. But I am delighted to take my first stage win with Mitsubishi!"
Peterhansel, the 2004 winner, continues to lead the Cars category with a seemingly comfortable 20-minute lead over Alphand, but as has been readily apparent in this year's event, minutes and hours are easily lost due to punctures or mechanical difficulties.
Third on the stage was Volkswagen's Robby Gordon, 17:29 back, and just 1:44 ahead of his teammate Jutta Kleinschmidt. Gordon is an excellent example of the difficulties the desert can spring on one: one of the fastest drivers throughout the race, he had to drive excruciatingly slowly to the finish of Stage 7, and he is now over 12 hours adrift of the leaders.
Kleinschmidt, on the other hand, is in a solid third position. She lost some more time to Peterhansel and Alphand, but she gained another 30 minutes on Nissan's Carlos Sousa on today's stage, and the gap between third and fourth is now nearly two hours.
The main threat to Kleinschmidt's podium position, Nasser Al-Attiyah, driving a BMW X5, was only 11 seconds behind at the start of today's special, but the Qatari driver crashed heavily about 50 km into the stage, and the initial reports indicate that his co-driver, Alain Guehennec, suffered some injuries, and the pair is withdrawing from the race.
BMW x-Raid's second driver' Jose Luis Monterde, crashed only about 10 km later, and also asked for medical assistance. However, Monterde was able to continue the stage.
With his speed today, Meoni climbs up from fifth and takes over the overall Bike category lead, as the erstwhile leaders were all well back on the day's stage. The previous category leader, Marc Coma, was nearly 14 minutes back of Esteve Pujol, with Andy Caldecott 8:10 behind and Alfie Cox just shy of the 10-minute mark.
"Even though I am in the lead overall I'm not too happy," Meoni complained at the end of the day. "They said that we would have lots of navigation and while we have less GPS points the new XTE system and the 3.3 km corridor cancels that all out and makes it difficult to make a break."
Norwegian privateer Pal Anders Ullevalseter set the third-fastest time on the stage -- the only other rider within five minutes of Esteve Pujol -- closing the gap to the overall leaders to a little over 12 minutes.
David Fretigne took a different route between CP1 and CP2, and it ended up costing him: the Yamaha rider finished 14 minutes off the pace, and is now back in eighth place in the standings, behind Ullevalseter.
Stacey's team came back after a disastrous Stage 7 to take second place on today's stage for MAN with a time of 6:26:23, just a minute faster than Karel Loprais' Tatra team.
With Firdaus Kabirov (Kamaz) and Hans Bekx (DAF) taking fourth and fifth, 20 and 24 minutes back, respectively, there are no changes in the top four on the leaderboard; Yoshimasa Sugawara (Hino) and Giacomo Vismara (Mercedes) continue to hold position behind Kabirov and Bekx.
Behind them, World Rally Championship veteran driver Miki Biasion had looked to threaten in the new Iveco Eurocargo, and had moved up to fifth place on the grueling Stage 7, but the Ivecos had a bad day today, with both Biasion and teammate Markku Alen falling back by more than an hour.
As a result, Teruhito Sugawara, son of Yoshimasa, was able to claim fifth place, giving Hino the distinction of being the only manufacturer with two trucks in the top seven. While the elder Sugawara is driving in a record 22nd Dakar, this is Teruhito's first Dakar as a driver.
Tomorrow is the traditional Dakar rest day, certain to be appreciated by the teams. After the rest, the competitors will drive a 483 km "loop" stage starting and finishing in Atar, and then a near-700 km marathon toward the border with Mali.