TICHIT (Mauritania): Violent winds and shifting sand failed to prevent defending champion Fabrizio Meoni heading ever closer to a repeat victory in the bikes' category on this year's Total Arras-Madrid-Dakar Rally. The Italian conceded 3m 45s to stage winner Giovanni Sala over the 422-kms loop around the sandstorm-ridden village of Tichit today, but retains an overall advantage of 3m 03s over second-placed Spaniard Joan Roma. It was Sala's first win of the race and only the second ever for the new twin-cylinder KTM LC8.
In the Cars' category, Hiroshi Masuoka remains on track for a maiden victory in his Mitsubishi Pajero, the Japanese star again setting the fastest time today, as team mates and major rivals Jutta Kleinschmidt and Kenjiro Shinozuka hit further trouble. A flat tyre and transmission problems cost them both time, but Shinozuka was further delayed by rear suspension maladies and Masuoka will take a massive 52-minute advantage into tomorrow and Saturday's gruelling final two-part Marathon section to Dakar.
Meoni was non-plussed by his overall advantage: "Today, Roma didn't want to do the navigation, so I had to. It was not possible for me to attack. In a descent, the bike was stuck in the camel grass. I fell to the ground and the bike fell on me. I was able to appreciate the weight of the twin-cylinder! On my last 10 rallies, I have almost won the last day each time. I hope that the battle will go to the last day. But, on this type of terrain, I don't think that my bike will help me much."
Roma was in determined mood: "A difficult day for me, without GPS, with 300 kms of camel grass. It would have been stupid to run in front and take the risks. I ran with Fabrizio, but he did the work. It was impossible to make a difference. I preferred to avoid an accident. Three minutes difference is a little. Tomorrow I start behind Meoni. If it is a good day to attack, I will do it."
Spaniard Isidre Esteve Pujol looked set for his first stage win of the campaign until he crashed 15 kms from the end of the section and there was more misery for Chilean Carlo de Gavardo, suffering from a gastric problem at the start of the section; he crashed, injured his left thumb and chin, suffered a nosebleed and now lies fourth overall.
As Kleinschmidt and Shinozuka fell further behind Mitsubishi team mate Masuoka, the Japanese collected yet another stage win, despite a coming together with second-placed team mate Jean-Pierre Fontenay 50 kms from the finish. "For me it was a very difficult stage today," said a relieved Masuoka. "The car is tired and I am tired. The camel grass was so hard. Jutta was stuck in the dunes, 'Shino' had a problem and we had a small collision with Jean-Pierre. It was not a case of going fast, just to survive was important. Now I must be very careful tomorrow."
Fontenay followed up yesterday's stage win with second fastest time to maintain fourth overall. "About 50 kms from the end of the stage we were on a descent and I was alongside Hiro. He started to slide down the sand and we came together gently, it was so slippery. The camel grass today was very tough. It was a hard stage, seemed to go on forever."
Stephane Peterhansel finally called it a day before the start of today's loop; the six-times bike winner has been plagued by a catalogue of mechanical problems since Morocco and was languishing in 25th overall when the decision was taken to withdraw the Nissan Pick-Up. Meanwhile, French rock star Johnny Hallyday, competing with three-times winner Rene Metge in a Nissan X-Trail, arrived in the bivouac at 10.20 this morning after completing yesterday's section with broken springs. He hopes to start again tomorrow with a massive time penalty.
Tomorrow (Friday) competitors head into the first half of the second Marathon section from windswept Tichit to Kiffa. All but six of the 473 kms will be competitive and are followed by the customary eight-hour break before the longer second section into Dakar, the vast proportion of which is made up of a non-competitive liaison. There are still 1500 kms to the finish at the Lac Rose in Dakar....