Late start to Dakar's mammoth stage ten.
If anyone was under-whelmed by the tactical antics of the leaders yesterday then the high drama played out on the dunes on Stage 10 today should be enough to compensate...
The crews broke camp in the pre-dawn darkness for nearly 700km of road section across the border and back into Argentina to start the 176km long 10th Stage, but Stephane Peterhansel almost didn't make it. Something broke in his gearbox and his support crew had to scramble around frantically to fix it in time to be able to get to the start line without penalty.
But the day started much worse for Carlos Sainz. He got badly stuck in the dunes near the beginning of the stage and his chances of a second straight win ran through his fingers like the sand he was furiously shoveling from around his wheels. At the first CP he was down in 12th place 9' 15" behind his team-mate and nemesis Nasser Al-Attiyah... who in turn was just a scant second ahead of a hard-charging Peterhansel, what ever was wrong with his gearbox now clearly sorted. Sainz, clearly dejected had this to say at the finish, "I lost a lot of time. I didn't have any luck today. We got stuck at the beginning, then we took the wrong way two or three times. We also had a puncture and I broke the gearbox at the end. It didn't go well at all. If Nasser doesn't make any mistakes, it's all over."
On one the soft sandy sections of the stage Stephane Peterhansel managed to pull out a solid 2' 30 lead over Al-Attiyah, certainly no mean feat on the Qatari's favourite surface, but when the route led them onto more gravely tracks the X-Raid BMW driver's 2010 Dakar curse struck once again. This time his bad luck wasn't manifest in tyre problems or small mechanical issues that cause big problems, today it was down to self-professed driver error. "It wasn't a very good day because we made a lot of mistakes," he said. "We started calmly in the dunes but then we got lost, as well as getting stuck when we wanted to cut through a dry river bed. We jumped a wall, but fell on the front of the car, which stayed stuck, so we had to get out and dig ourselves free. It wasn't a good special. We went on the attack, but we made too many mistakes."
This let the leading VW back in front and at this point Sainz was 14' 21 adrift of the flying Qatari, but Al-Attiyah wasn't home yet... a small navigation error from German co-driver Timo Gottschalk meant that they took a 2km deviation from the route before turning back to correct the mistake. This let the 3rd placed VW of Giniel de Villiers slip through to claim the stage win 4'23 ahead of the X-Raid BMW of Krzysztof Holowczyc who praised his co-driver's abilities as they were one of the few leaders not to get lost.
"Today was our day. I think that I did just as good a job as my co-driver Dirk von Zitzewitz," said the South African. "However, at the end his stroke of genius made all the difference. It's fabulous also to finally win a stage in this 'Dakar', even though it came a little later than I'd hoped."
Peterhansel eventually took 3rd with Al-Attiyah making it back in 4th place, but importantly 9'19 in front of Sainz, which means he finishes the day with an overall lead of 12'37.
There was drama aplenty with the bikes today as well with Cyril Despres making two critical mistakes handing a healthy advantage to arch-rival Marc Coma who needed no second invitation to take as much time as possible off the struggling Frenchman... and promptly won the stage.
Yesterday's stage winner Johan Street had the dubious honour of leading the field away this morning. Often top riders and drivers complain about 'opening' the stage and this is because the first person over the terrain has no one else's tracks to follow... they have to be completely reliant on the instructions of the roadbook... which costs speed and can easily lead to navigational mistakes... as Street soon found out. At the first CP he was already 13 minutes down on the leader.
Coma was slow to get up to speed, only 6th at the first CP, 1'02 behind fast starting Portuguese rider Helder Rodrigues, but then in a seesaw day had the lead at CP2... only for Rodrigues to retake it at CP3, a lead he managed to extend to 3'10 at the final CP before the finish, but then it all went wrong in the un-navigable rocky channels of a dried up riverbed. "It was the same as yesterday!" lamented Rodrigues. "I started behind Marc and Cyril and I caught up with them. Afterwards, about ten kilometres from here, [the finish] we got lost in a dry river bed and couldn't find the way out. I lost a lot of time there. That's two days in a row now. It's hard to take".
Stage winner Coma was obviously in a more positive mood: "It was another very difficult special. We know that Fiambala is one of the hardest days of the rally. There was a lot of navigation and a part with soft dunes. Then, in a dry riverbed, it was just as complicated because it was difficult to navigate. We got a bit lost, but managed to find the right track and finish off decently."
Despres on the other hand could only be philosophical about what could have been... "I made a first big mistake after 120 km whilst I was riding well. I read 17 instead of 117 on the navigation and I ended up in the rocks. We already lost lots of time there, but then in the last few kilometres I made another mistake, turned round and fell into a mud hole. It was impossible to get back out, it took me ten minutes in all. I though I was going to lose even more time. It's a bad day, but that's rally raids for you, some days are good, some are bad".
It was two local riders at the top of the timesheet today with Honda rider Jorge Santamarina coming in 8 seconds ahead of fellow countryman Sebastian Halpern on his Yamaha.
The early running was led by Polish Yamaha rider Lukasz Laskawiec but his lead was lost when he made a wrong turn, taking the class leader Alejandro Patronelli with him costing the Argentinean around 5 minutes... although with the luxury of a 1 hour 20 minute lead he won't be too worried.
Ales Loprias in his sticking yellow Tatra didn't make it out of yesterday's stage so the race is now between the two closely matched Kamaz drivers Firdaus Kabirov and Vladimir Chagin, with young Eduard Nikolaev holding down a secure third place. Kamaz team director Simeon Yakubov seems to have made the sporting decision to let his experienced drivers fight it out for victory rather than settle matters by issuing team orders.
For the first half of the stage Kabirov and Chagin swapped the lead with Nikolaev still in touch in third, but in the 50-odd kilometres between CP 3 and CP 5 Chagin proceeded to decimate the challenge of his team mate with the seven-time champion pulling out an incredible 26 minutes advantage. Kabirov tried to mount a fight back near the end but the 5 minutes he managed to claw back weren't nearly enough to prevent him loosing the lead again. This time he is in second by a hefty 17'27.
Their seemingly over-looked team mate Nikolaev lost of lot of time midway through the stage and came in in 6th, some 44 minutes back, but with more than a 2 hour lead over Franz Echter his hopes of standing on the bottom step of the podium still live on. In the recent Silk Way Rally in Russia Nikolaev beat both his illustrious team-leading-mates, so although he's a long way from glory this time, he is definitely a star of the future.
So, there are now only two days left to run, but after today's very technical 176km the outlook of the event has changed with clear leaders emerging in the car, bike and truck classes. Tomorrow will be a long day, two sections high up on the plateau split into two halves. All Sainz, Despres and Kabirov can do is push to the maximum, but time is running out.
Join us tomorrow to see what happens.