Nancy Knapp Schilke, Dakar correspondent
Mud played a factor for the Bike class before route was altered
Today’s main story about the long 477km special stage has to be centered around the Bike category and the alteration of the route after several riders were stuck in the mud from the rio (river) that was approximately 11km from the timed starting point. While the new Bike overall leader, Marc Coma, was able to avoid it as the first rider on the road today Cyril Despres did not! Earlier it appeared that Despres was being handed a gift when Coma made a rare navigation error. However, when Despres was stuck for nearly 10 minutes, the tables changed and the Frenchman was giving the Catalan native a gift. In the Dakar event, extra minutes stuck in the mud are costly.
The route today took the competitors from Copiapó and Antofagasta across the Atacama Desert in a twisty curve to the north and then back near the Pacific Ocean. Many were dreading today’s marathon stage that combined with the liaison totals 722km. Tomorrow’s special stage will be the longest of the 2012 Dakar edition at 556km.
I was the first to fall into the trap.
While Coma was able to open up a gap on back to his main rival as the KTM rider hopes to nail down his fourth Dakar legend status, the race directors made an adjustment to the route so others were not stuck. They also announced that the first riders who were in the mud would have time deducted to and to make it fair to all, which also reduced the time Coma ate up on his error. The mud racers who had time deducted were: Despres, Paulo Gonçalves, Helder Rodrigues, Gerard Farres Guell, Pal Andres Ullevalseter and David Casteu.
Coma not only ended up with the overall Bike lead, he also notched his 20th Dakar stage win. The defending Bike winner now has a margin over rival KTM rider, Despres, of 1:26 minutes. “A very long special. I was lucky not to lose too much time in the mud and then I saw I could open a gap, so I attacked really hard. But towards the end I noticed I had engine problems, so I slowed down a bit to ensure I would make it to the finish. This is my 20th special victory: a nice figure. Yet it is not winning specials that counts, but winning the race. And I know there is still a long week of racing ahead,” said Coma.
Despres gave his viewpoint of what happened before the race directors made their decision. “There was a torrent of mud between the inspection of the reconnaissance car two days ago and today. Therefore, it did not appear in the road book and I was the first to fall into the trap. There was no way I could have avoided it. I am awaiting the organisers' decision: after Ullevalseter, Gonçalves and a few others had gone through, they took a detour, otherwise there would have been 200 vehicles trapped in the mud.”
Third still belongs to Yamaha rider Rodrigues, who is 49 minutes off the pace of the leader. The Portuguese native has to watch his back for a podium finish as he is just less than 22 minutes in front of Casteu, also on a Yamaha. The Frenchman just took fourth out of the hands of Goncalves but the Portuguese rider on a Husqvarna is only 2:19 minutes out of fourth. Everyone thought today was going to be a calm day, but it turned out to be quite difficult.
“There was a lot of navigational work, especially a muddy area in a río near km 11. Many riders got stuck in there, it was incredible. But I am still third in the general classification, and that is great,” smiled Rodrigues.
Nani Roma took his first stage win of the 2012 Dakar Car contest. The MINI driver was only five seconds faster than American Robby Gordon! It was a great battle again today between the X-raid MINI team drivers and the Team SPEED Hummers. While Roma celebrated, so did Gordon who overtook Krzysztof Holowczyc for second overall.
“No mistakes were allowed in this fast stage,” said Roma. “I pulled out all the stops in the second part. I drove like this for 15 to 20 kilometres and then there was a turn. Then it was back to putting the pedal on the metal for 20 more kilometres. I could not drive any better or go any faster. I am happy with this stage, happy with my victory. I am also happy because we did not have any mechanical problems. The car is working well. In the end I was just behind Stéphane [Peterhansel], but I was unable to overtake him.”
Roma was the first Spanish winner of the Dakar when he contested the event on the African Continent in 2004 on a KTM and it was his consistency then that landed him his Bike legend status. Roma sits fourth overall, 13 minutes behind the overall leader.
For Gordon it must have been heartbreaking to come so close to his first stage win this year and he held the best time for at least eight minutes! Roma could obviously taste the victory as he moved in for the kill which is a skill he has shown before. The American said, “Nani may have beat me, but it must have been close. Beating Peterhansel by seven minutes makes this a great day. In all honesty, I did not attack too much, except towards the end of the stage. At any rate, I was not at my best in the first 300 kilometres, only in the last 150. I felt the others breathing down my neck, so I accelerated.”
MINI driver Holowczyc finished third on the stage but lost two minutes to Gordon today and needs to find the 12 seconds to take back the second spot in the standings. Fourth was Stephane Peterhansel in his MINI followed by the defending Dakar Car title holder, Nasser Al-Attiyah in one of the Gordon prepared Hummer H3s.
Overall leader Peterhansel lost more time today due to a flat tyre within 30 km of the finish line. The winner of 10 Dakar events – six in the Bike category and three Car ones thus far – hopes that his luck is not going away as he is searching for the elusive victory he has yet to secure in the South American Dakar event. The Frenchman’s margin over Gordon for the Car standings is just 7:36 minutes.
Peterhansel admitted, “I am losing loads of time. I drove quite slowly in the rocky parts because I was scared of punctures. And despite this... I had one 30 km from the finish. It was a bad special, but that is the way it is. Gordon started three minutes before us, and 180 kilometres from here we had got to 30 seconds behind him. I think that when he saw us he stepped it up, leaving us in the dust. He can win this thing, so it is essential for him to manage this situation as well as he can.”
Al-Attiyah was first on the road today and bad luck again struck down the Qatari with engine belt and alternator problems! Due to his having to stop more than once, he lost more time to the Car leaders but when he was running, he was at full speed! Unless the top runners have problems and Al-Attiyah’s luck changes, he will not repeat his 2011 win or land on the podium at all. He is now close to 38 minutes behind the Car leader.
“We had a problem with an engine belt. We repaired it... and shortly after it was the alternator's turn to need a repair. But then we started attacking in earnest. There were six cars in front of us and we overtook all the Minis, as well as De Villiers' Toyota. We did a good job. They are nervous because I overtook all of them, but that is not my problem. I know everything is going smoothly, and we will see how far we can go,” said Al-Attiyah.
In the Quad category, Yamaha rider Alejandro Patronelli could have put his brother Marcos further behind him but instead he appeared to back off after leading the entire special stage until the final kilometres and that is when Marcos Patronelli sped up and took the win.
“The stage was not too difficult. I stayed behind the cars for a while until I was alone and was able set a good pace. 40 km from the finish I had a flat tyre without consequence,” Marcos Patronelli said. “I am happy with today's stage. The quad is performing well. The team and assistance are also doing a good job.”
The two Argentineans have one Dakar championship apiece with Marcos taking the win in 2010 and Alejandro earning his last year. Marcos still needs to eat away more time between him and his brother after losing a chunk of time on the seventh stage when he got lost.
Alejandro Patronelli said, “A long, tough and fast stage. The final part was also complicated. I am very happy and thank God I made it to the finish. I started among the motorcycles. I feared it might be complicated, but things turned out OK. I had the entire course to myself and was able to set a good pace. Most of the stage was full of rocks and my hands hurt a bit. But I am really happy. The classification is not my main concern.”
Tomas Maffei is still second overall in his Yamaha as the trio from Argentina continued to dominate the Quad field. Maffei hopes that he can still notch his first Dakar championship.
Ales Loprais finally took his first stage win in this year’s Dakar! The Czech has been pushing hard to score the victory and came close over stages 5 and 7, and today was his day to celebrate his fourth Dakar Truck stage win. After a good fight today with Gerard de Rooy, his gap over the Truck class leader was 1 minute and 31 seconds and he kept his Tatra second overall and is now 15:39 minutes behind the Dutchman.
“There was a lot of fesh-fesh today and the tyres got hot. It is difficult, but we are still in the running. Being in the running in the second week of the rally is good. Fighting De Rooy or someone else makes no difference,” said Loprais. “At the Dakar, you are your main opponent. This means you have to stay calm and drive consistently. I know my truck is a strong challenger this year. We call it “Princess", and I must say we are quite proud of her performance so far.”
De Rooy was three for three in his team’s Iveco after winning the fourth, fifth and seventh stages – the sixth stage was canceled – so he is still the one holding the overall lead. “Today was rather tough. The first part was quite humpy. We had an interesting battle with Loprais. He overtook me in a slightly bad section and I caught up with him roughly 50 kilometres later. This is good for our morale. We lost a few minutes to him but there is still a long way to go. I will do my best to be consistent and avoid flat tyres,” he said.
The former World Rally Championship ace, Miki Biasion, was third today for the de Rooy team. The Italian was over 12 minutes off the pace of Loprais but is still way behind but as a novice in Dakar, Biasion is gaining experience plus he is behind the wheel of a big truck and not a rally car. Hans Stacey is still third overall by 48 minutes and he was fifth today for the de Rooy team.
Stage nine will take the competitors from Antofagasta to Iquique as the continue another demanding stage in Chile. This will be the longest special timed section of the 2012 Dakar; it is the "marathon" and not all will make it to the finish. The first part is a very short 9 km liaison before they take on the challenge covering 556 km divided into two sectors. The first takes them thru canyons and the tracks should be clean allowing them to get to the top speeds of their racing machines. A short break and before heading to the second sector which will use all of their navigational skills.
For the riders, they have to handle both but the Truck and Car categories will have their co-pilots to work as a team. The landmarks will limited which means they will have t be very accurate to find the mandatory waypoints and safely make it through the checkpoints. If they succeed, they will have a beautiful view of the shores of the Pacific Ocean as they make the descent into Iquique.