DAKAR (Senegal): Belgian Gregoire de Mevius and Portugal's Bernardo Vilar took stage victories on the penultimate section of the Total Arras-Madrid-Dakar Rally, but it did little to prevent Italian Fabrizio Meoni and Japan's Hiroshi...
DAKAR (Senegal): Belgian Gregoire de Mevius and Portugal's Bernardo Vilar took stage victories on the penultimate section of the Total Arras-Madrid-Dakar Rally, but it did little to prevent Italian Fabrizio Meoni and Japan's Hiroshi Masuoka moving ever closer to taking runaway wins in the bike and car categories. Vladimir Tchaguine remains on track for success in the Trucks' category, although the Brazilian Andre de Azevedo won the stage today.
De Mevius, who set the fastest time at Chateau Lastours in France at the end of December, ended a miserable rally on a high note with the Nissan Pick-Up, while Vilar notched up his first ever Dakar stage win. But, more importantly, Meoni extended his advantage over South African Alfie Cox to 47m 52s with a mere 30 kms of competitive action to go and Masuoka stayed ahead of his four Mitsubishi team mates and will start Sunday's final section with a comfortable 22m 01s advantage over defending champion Jutta Kleinschmidt.
'It was a difficult night,' admitted Vilar. 'I only slept one and a half hours before the stage, the liaison was very bad. It was a special stage in my favour. I have a broken collar bone and that makes it quite difficult to ride. I didn't think I would win the stage, but I used the gas sensibly without making a mistake with the road book.' Meoni was upbeat: 'I didn't expect to do so well with the new bike, yet alone win. The rally has been very hard and the sections have been long and tiring. The Marathon stages are really punishing. What with the weather and the long liaison sections, they have really made us work hard. I need some sleep now, I feel really tired. The win is not far away, but tomorrow is another day.'
Giovanni Sala, winner of the stage into Tichit, finished the Marathon stage in second place on a twin-cylinder KTM, while Frenchman Richard Sainct, Norwegian Pal Anders Ullevalseter and Meoni completed the top five. In the Cars' category, De Mevius beat Masuoka by a little over three minutes, but Mitsubishis dominated the top placings, with Masuoka, Kenjiro Shinozuka, Kleinschmidt, Carlos Sousa and Saeed al-Hajri rounding off the top six.
A smiling Masuoka was understandably relieved to be within a whisker of a maiden Dakar triumph: 'We are in Dakar, but it is not over yet. The special stage was quite easy. But the liaison section was so long and the road was very twisty. You had to be very careful, especially where it was raining and the track was slippery. I feel very tired and need to sleep well and look forward to tomorrow. My fingers are crossed.'
Nissan's misery had continued on the penultimate section into Kiffa, when runaway Production class leader Thierry de Lavergne had wheel bearing problems and slipped down the leaderboard while he waited for assistance. Despite clawing back over five minutes today, the Production title now lies in the hands of Frenchman Jean-Jacques Ratet in a Toyota Landcruiser. Former world skiiing champion Luc Alphand is a mere 30 kms away from clinching the Super Production diesel class in his seventh-placed Pajero; it will be the first time he has reached Lac Rose in Dakar...
In the Trucks' section, Vladimir Tchaguine has an advantage of 4h 15m over nearest rival Karel Loprais in a Czech Tatra. Kamaz won the Dakar in 1996 and 2000; Tchaguine is bidding for his third overall victory, but only his second as a driver.
From 10pm last night the leading entrants had embarked upon the gruelling second half of the Marathon stage from Kiffa in Mauritania, across the border into Senegal and on to Dakar. Appalling weather conditions, poorly lit tracks and the inherent dangers of travelling quickly, at night, across Africa, threatened to derail the leaders' challenge. Only 167 of the section's 1019 kms were competitive, but it was not to be taken lightly.
Tomorrow (Sunday) the final chapter of this year's Dakar will draw to a close. A mere 30 kms of competitive action around Lac Rose stand between a repeat success for Fabrizio Meoni and KTM, a first title for Japanese driver Hiroshi Masuoka and a record-breaking seventh success for Mitsubishi. Those few kilometres will feel like some of the longest in their respective careers.