Stephane Peterhansel didn't win the 8th stage of the Dakar rally, but a shared second place on the 508 km Atar-to-Nouakchott special was good enough to catapult him into an overall lead in the standings.
Thierry Magnaldi took a second stage victory for Schlesser-Ford, to go with the one from day six, by a margin of nearly seven minutes over Peterhansel's Mitsubishi Pajero and Mark Miller's Volkswagen Touareg.
"We made it, it's our second victory in Africa," a happy Magnaldi explained at the bivouac. "It's great but it's also too bad that Jean-Louis (Schlesser) could not follow us when we overtook him. Finishing 1st and 2nd would have been fantastic for our team! Our navigation was excellent today, we succeeded in dunes where the others failed to find their way around km 240."
However, after Magnaldi's disastrous day yesterday, which saw him lose an hour and forty-one minutes, the victory was only enough to move from eighth to sixth overall -- leapfrogging his team leader and two-time Dakar winner, Jean-Louis Schlesser.
Peterhansel now has a 32-second lead over his teammate Luc Alphand, who completed the stage in fifth place, 10:36 adrift of Magnaldi, having spent some time digging out the Pajero from a dune.
"We headed to the right at the hidden way point at kilometre 287," Alphand told the story. "There was an erg with very soft dunes to absolutely avoid. Actually, you only have to pass one kilometre on the left to make sure not to have any problem. But we rode straight to it, and we remained stuck in a very soft little dune. We had to use the sand plaques and dig for twenty minutes. It is a pity but it is part of the game."
The powerful Volkswagen team suffered another day of woe. Third-placed Jutta Kleinschmidt got stuck in the sand just before CP1, and then suffered two punctures, ending up with a stage time 70 minutes behind Magnaldi. The German Dakar veteran is now in fifth place overall, over an hour behind Peterhansel.
"We ground to a halt on a straight and had to use the sand boards to build some sort of road to get out again," Kleinschmidt explained. "That cost us 47 minutes. (Co-pilot) Fabrizia (Pons) and I are obviously very disappointed."
Rallying legend Carlos Sainz, who has three stage wins to his credit so far, had a clutch problem 26 km into the special, and needed an assistance truck to get under way again. The Spaniard had to drive through much of the marathon stage in total darkness -- as if Dakar in the daylight were not enough of a challenge -- and he reached the end of the stage just before midnight, about eight hours behind Peterhansel's stage time. At this point, "El Matador's" chances of an overall victory appear to have evaporated in the heat of Mauritania.
The only Touareg within 30 minutes of the two lead Mitsubishis now is that of Giniel de Villiers, who stands third overall, the South African having finished today's stage in sixth place, 26 minutes behind Magnaldi.
"It's amazing to think that we gained a position," Villiers said. "Everything went wrong today: three tyre failures, bogged down once, then we caught up another car, got lost and to cap it all we stopped to clean grass out of the blocked radiator."
"Reaching the rest day and winning a special, it's unbelievable," said Casteau. "I am very lucky. It is a bit like a Christmas present! This morning, I punctured and had to repair alone in the desert. Then, I caught up Cyril whose navigation has been incredible until the finish. We rode together, and at the end, I won my first stage on the Dakar."
Despres was even more relieved, having started the stage 40 minutes behind Coma, and in severe pain.
"Frankly, I am relieved to be here," he recounted. "To be honest, this morning, I was on the verge of giving up. My shoulder still hurts but, above all, I have been suffering from a very painful wrist tendonitis since Morocco. It's getting worse and worse everyday. The only reason I took the start this morning is as a tribute to Fabrizio (Meoni) who died on this stage last year. It was my only motivation."
The two Gauloises KTM teammates completed the day without any navigation errors, something that Coma and his Repsol KTM teammate, Isidre Esteve Pujol, were unable to avoid. As a result, Casteau scored the stage win, two minutes faster than Chris Blais and Despres.
"My stomach was painful at the beginning of the stage, I had to stop at km 60 because of that," Blais explained his own troubles. "Then I rode at my own pace and I did my own navigation. I had great fun to ride in dunes today but I'm also glad to have a rest tomorrow!"
Coma and Esteve Pujol had much more trouble navigating, and a wrong turn ended up costing them badly.
"Today's special was 500 kms long and, just as the previous ones, it's been a very hard day,"Coma said. "There was a lot of riding and navigation today, especially the first 160 kms between dune mountains, but in the end the desert started to open itself. I made a mistake and unfortunately I lost a lot of time looking for a masked waypoint. We found it and I managed to make up some time towards the end."
With Esteve Pujol and Coma finishing the stage seven and eight minutes adrift, respectively, Despres succeeded in narrowing Coma's lead to just under 27 minutes -- still a fair chunk of time to make up with an injured shoulder.
The big news on the truck front on Thursday was the two-hour lead that Vladimir Tchaguine had built up on Firdaus Kabirov, his Kamaz-Master teammate, with Karel Loprais (Tatra) and Hans Stacey (Exact-MAN) a further eight and eleven minutes behind, respectively.
Tchaguine had been intent on building up a lead, to make sure that a delay -- even if not as bad as his running out of fuel last year between Zouerat and Tichit -- would not destroy his chances.
As it turns out, Tchaguine's fast pace looks very astute now. The four-time Dakar winner got stuck in the sand yesterday, and again today, and finished today's eighth stage nearly 52 minutes behind Kabirov, and over 46 minutes behind Stacey.
"That was a good day for us because we didn't make any mistakes and that was the most important thing today," Kabirov said. "Our result relied mostly on navigation. Some pilots preferred to drive off-road in order to find out hidden way points. We focused on the roadbook; Hans Stacey also drove like us and it finally worked."
The truck category race, which had appeared much like a Tchaguine parade, is looking much more competitive now. Tchaguine still holds the lead, but Kabirov is only 30 minutes adrift, and Stacey, the positive surprise of the year in the category, is just under 45 minutes behind.
"We have once again been generous with our rivals today," the Russian Dakar ace explained. "We gave them 40 minutes yesterday and 52 minutes today. It is stressing since we fight for five or ten minutes every day. God took me in one day what he gave me on the six first stages! Although it could be worse: we still have a 30-minutes advantage on Kabirov and 45 minutes on Stacey."
While Karel Loprais, in fourth overall, is over two hours behind, one difficult erg or a seemingly minor navigation error could rapidly shuffle the order of the top three truck drivers.
For one of the most promising truck teams of the early stages, today was the end of the story. Motorsport Italia, whose rally starts Miki Biasion and Markku Alen fell out earlier, lost its last driver as Pep Vila's Iveco Trakker was unable to make it past the start of today's stage.
Tomorrow is a well-deserved and much-anticipated rest day for the rally. Drivers and riders will be sure to take the opportunity to make up for their lack of sleep, while the teams' mechanics will need the day to get the cars, trucks and bikes back into running condition.
The rally will resume on Monday with the longest stage of the event, with 599 km of dunes and rocky terrain from Nouakchott to Kiffa.