Volkswagen Motorsport, which set out a week ago to defend its first Dakar victory, looks to be in a strong position at the halfway point of the legendary cross-country event. The official day of rest came after the longest day of the rally in this year's trek across Argentina and Chile.
Carlos Sainz, the 1990 and 1992 World Rally Champion, is in the lead on his fourth attempt at a Dakar victory, all at the wheel of a Volkswagen Race Touareg. Eleven minutes separate Sainz from his teammate Nasser Al-Attiyah and 22 minutes from the third Race Touareg of Mark Miller.
However, the Spaniard surely hasn't forgotten the bitter result of the 2009 event, where he held a 27-minute lead over his VW teammates, Giniel de Villiers and Miller with just two days to go, only to crash out on the penultimate stage, finishing the event at the bottom of a ravine.
"The Race Touareg is running like clockwork, no matter whether in soft and deep sand, on gravel or on stony ground," Sainz reflected. "So, all in all, there's plenty of reason to be happy, as well as a big 'but': we have merely finished half of the rally."
The three Race Touaregs have not dominated the stage victories, but their combination of mechanical reliability and skilled driving has largely kept them out of trouble, and the trio's closest challengers, BMW X-raid's Guerlain Chicherit and Stephane Peterhansel, are both now just over two hours behind Sainz.
It has been de Villiers, the 2009 winner after Sainz's accident, who has single-handedly taken on most of the team's misfortunes this year, allowing his teammates to draw away from the competition. An accident on the third day dropped de Villiers well back, and the #300 Race Touareg is now mired in 12th place, four and a half hours behind the leaders.
"Our first rally week was anything but perfect," de Villiers mused. "We lost a lot of time as a result of many small mishaps but particularly due to an accident. We're no longer in the race for Dakar victory. But that's the Dakar: hard and unrelenting."
More terminal was the sixth-stage rollover suffered by the fifth Race Touareg: Mauricio Neves was airlifted to hospital for examination, and although he was found to have only two cracked ribs, his Dakar was over for this year.
Sven Quandt, the director of Team X-raid and the scion of BMW's Quandt family, has to be disappointed at the misfortunes suffered by his semi-works team. Peterhansel has two stage victories so far -- matching Al-Attiyah -- and Joan 'Nani' Roma has another, and yet the team has to accept its cars only in fourth, fifth and ninth places, and a massive gap to make up to the leaders.
"We were able to show the true potential of the BMW X3 CC," Quandt said. "Just two things happened which have potentially cost us a fantastic result and prevented us from being much higher in the overall classification. They were Nani's accident and the prop shaft problems for Peterhansel."
It was Peterhansel's problem that hurt the team the most: the French Dakar legend had been leading the event after four stages, when a newly-fitted driveshaft failed on stage five, stranding his BMW on the road. Peterhansel and co-driver Jean-Paul Cottret were able to make repairs to get the car moving, but with rear-wheel drive only, further slowing them down for the remainder of the 483-km stage.
"We lost the rally today," Peterhansel admitted after finally finishing the stage, over two hours adrift. "We stand no chance of even dreaming about victory, that is sure! We broke the axle because there was a succession creases in the track. Each time the car would jump and land, it picked up a bit of grip. We are a bit surprised. Of course it is disappointing too."
Roma, too, suffered an accident while in the lead: after winning the first stage, the Spaniard lost 15 minutes to a minor accident on the second stage, and then damaged his BMW badly enough on the third that the team had to withdraw it.
Behind the battling German juggernauts, the top privateer is Krzysztof Holowczyc, the Polish rally and Dakar veteran piloting a Nissan pickup for the Orlyn Team. The team has impressed with its consistency, and stand sixth at the halfway point, only 17 minutes behind Chicherit and Peterhansel.
"Finally, we can relax," Holowczyc sighed. "Such a nice time when you have been thinking only about the car. Our mechanics do not have a free day, but thanks to them our car will be as good as new, because all parts are replaced."
We should also note the JMB Stradale squad, upholding the colours of the famed Mitsubishi marque, twelve-time winners of Dakar. After the works team withdrew from rally-raid racing amid last year's economic crisis, JMB acquired the team's assets, including the newly-developed Racing Lancers.
Carlos Sousa, the most experienced of the team's five drivers, is satisfied with the team's progress, which now has all of its cars in the top 13.
"Every day, we try not to make mistakes," he explained. "As of tomorrow, we're going to have to define a team strategy as up until now we've been driving on individual bases."
But at the moment, all eyes are on the trio of Race Touaregs at the front -- will they make it through the final seven days to score a second victory for the works team and third for the marque? The second-ever Dakar was won by Freddy Kottulinsky in a privateer Volkswagen Iltis.
"I'm proud of each and every one in the squad, as we're leading this extremely tough competition with three vehicles," summed up Kris Nissen, the director of Volkswagen Motorsport. "This means that we've achieved a lot but haven't won anything yet. The following will apply to the coming seven stages as it has before: You've always got to stay cool-headed at the 'Dakar'. Only then will you have a chance to be at the very front in the end as well."
The finish to this year's story is still being written, and there are seven grueling stages remaining before the victors arrive in Buenos Aires in a week's time. Whose name will be remembered as the 2010 winner?