KIFFA (Mauritania): Defending champion Fabrizio Meoni took a giant step nearer to winning his second successive Total Arras-Madrid-Dakar Rally, by taking fastest time over the rain and wind-lashed 467-kms competitive section between Tichit and Kiffa in Mauritania. Arch rival Joan Roma pulled up near the start, suffering from exhaustion and signs of hyperthermia after losing his way, and fellow KTM front-runners Carlo de Gavardo and Giovanni Sala missed a secret passage control and each incurred a two-hour time penalty. Twice former winner Richard Sainct was second, although the second-half of the Marathon section to Dakar begins tonight in Kiffa and there will be no official results for the stage until tomorrow.
In the Cars' category, runaway leader Hiroshi Masuoka blotted his copybook with a navigational error 41.4 kms into the stage and lost a total of 30 minutes to team mate Kenjiro Shinozuka, but recovered to stay on track for his first ever Dakar victory. The stage win fell to Germany's Jutta Kleinschmidt, who regained second overall from Shinozuka, when he collected two flat tyres late on.
'The start of the stage was the same as the end from the other day and was very bumpy, not good for my back and my neck,' said Shinozuka. 'We passed the chott (dried salt lake) with no problems and then I had two punctures. The sand was so slippery because of the rain. I have taken part in 17 Dakars and this was the first time I saw rain like this.'
Jutta now trails Masuoka by 18m28s - almost a carbon copy of last year's situation...when she snatched victory on the final day. Carlos Sousa had been running well early in the stage and was third through the first passage control, but his L200 became stuck in soft sand soon after and the Portuguese slipped to fifth, behind Mitsubishi team mates Kleinschmidt, Shinozuka, Jean-Pierre Fontenay and Masuoka.
Bikes' leader Meoni survived a late scare when he lost his way 21 kms from the stage finish. He now takes an unofficial advantage of 45m 49s over South African Alfie Cox into the second half of the Marathon stage. Cox and Spaniard Esteve Pujol Isidre were third and fourth overall today, with Frenchman Pierre Quinonero an excellent fifth.
'The problem was the sand with all the rain,' said Meoni. 'If you tried to follow the track, the front tyre would pull and you would come off. The rain made the terrain so slippery. When I left this morning, I thought the race was lost and the stage would not permit me to go fast. At PC2, when someone told me that Roma had fallen, I thought he'd just lost some time. I continued quickly and I fell. At the refuelling PC, no-one arrived.'
Speaking at the medical tent in Kiffa soon after, Roma was understandably distraught: 'I lost myself. I arrived in a rocky area. I was desperate and tried to climb. Then I fell. I don't know how. A TV crew found me. I was breathing badly and hyperventilating. This year I have never been so close to winning the Dakar.'
There was agony too today for Dave Hammond, Britain's sole hope of a Dakar finish; 20th overall in Tichit this morning, after losing time with navigation problems on the loop yesterday, the Cirencester rider crashed heavily over a dune mid-way through the section and suffered a broken collar bone, a damaged shoulder and a back injury, his dream of a top 20 finish ending into the bargain.
Driving winds and shifting sand at Tichit gave way to a constant drizzle as the Dakar caravan arrived in Kiffa. The rally had started in the mud of Central France shortly after Christmas and looked set to be decided in the sandy slush at the final bivouac before Dakar.
After a compulsory eight-hour break, tonight's penultimate section is largely liaison and heads west from Kiffa, across the border into Senegal and on to Dakar. Only 165 of the leg's 1011 kms are competitive, but the road section will be tiring for an already weary Dakar caravan. Over 10% of the route is still to run.....