Carlos Sainz wasn't intimidated by his first exposure to the dunes of the Dakar rally; the World Rally Championship legend more than made up for yesterday's navigation problems with a strong performance on stage four, taking the victory and reclaiming the overall lead.
Sainz, driving in his first Dakar, and co-driver Andreas Schulz have now won three of the first four stages in their Volkswagen Race Touareg, and clearly are a force to be reckoned with.
On today's 386 km special from Er Rachidia to Ouarzazate, Sainz outdistanced Thierry Magnaldi's Schlesser-Ford buggy by two minutes, and the top Mitsubishi driver, Luc Alphand, was over three minutes behind in third place.
Behind the leading trio, it was another strong Volkswagen showing, with Giniel de Villiers just six seconds behind Alphand, and Bruno Saby and Jutta Kleinschmidt in fifth and sixth.
Volkswagen now has a 1-2-3 lead, with Saby and Kleinschmidt approximately five minutes behind Sainz. De Villiers is fifth overall, just 14 seconds behind yesterday's stage winner, Jean-Louis Schlesser.
Nasser Al-Attiyah was seventh in another strong X-Raid BMW performance, nine minutes behind Sainz, and moves to seventh overall.
Mitsubishi struggled on the day; apart from Alphand's performance, the works Pajeros were eleventh (Nani Roma), fourteenth (Stephane Peterhansel) and and fifteenth (Hiroshi Masuoka).
The dominant team in Dakar has not really shown what they have in the past editions. Today, Masuoka crashed and has withdrawn from the event. "I'm really disappointed to retire here. It is very frustrating since I had a really good feeling. I leave tha Dakar exactly as last year, after an accident during the second stage in Morocco," said the downcasted Japanese driver.
"We have had a difficult day... A little mistake and we found ourselves behind the others, in the dust. It has been difficult to catch them up. But nothing dramatic," said a calm Peterhansel as he remembered last year's run for the legendary status. "Actually, we are exactly in the same position as last year. It is true that it is not good to be a few minutes adrift. But we will fill this gap, and out-distance our opponents. It is true that things are getting a bit more difficult, but we have to stay cool anyway."
Just like Sainz, on the two-wheeled side, Isidre Esteve Pujol made up for yesterday's navigation errors with a torrid ride for Gauloises KTM, starting back in 19th place and making his way past a score of other riders to take a 28-second victory over his compatriot Marc Coma (Repsol KTM).
"It has been a good day. Things are going on quite well since the beginning of the rally, in spite of the dust which makes every overtaking very difficult," commented the happy Spaniard on today's victory. "Once again, there was a lot of dust and I had to get off the track a couple of times to overtake. But after having passed Fretigne et Ullevalseter, I have been able to ride at a good pace until the end of the stage."
With stage three winner and race leader Cyril Despres finishing the stage nearly seven minutes adrift of Esteve Pujol, Coma takes over the overall Bike category lead, five minutes ahead of Esteve Pujol, who recovered from ninth to slip past Despres for second place.
"Yesterday I was happy because of the result, today because I enjoyed the passage of the first dunes," Despres commented quietly. "I can say that the race is only at his beginning and that I made a god job. All is working well".
While race leader Coma gave his view of how he embarks on each stage: "The first priority is not to make mistakes and to sustain a sharp rhythm. And finally you have to be supported by your complete and absolute concentration. It is difficult to hand this delicate balance between the elements," he said. "I feel good and I try to be always clever and calm."
Vladimir Tchaguine romped to another stage win in the truck category, the four time Dakar winner has now notched four stage wins. The Russian has had a bit of help from both the organizers and the his competition.
"Today, it has been a good day, with all the classical difficulties: Dunes, dust and navigation. But the most interesting thing was the long distance of the stage," the truck category leader commented.
The DAFs failed to have proper documentation before the start and were disqualified from participating. The defending Dakar title holder Firdaus Kabirov had a turbo failure in his Kamaz when he drove too long yesterday without oil. The officials have allowed the Russian team to install a new turbo.
Andre de Azevedo encountered problems on stage three as well when his gearbox failed. Repairs were made last night to the Brazilian's Tatra and he was able to finish today in seventh, allowing him to remain in the top five overall in fourth.
And today, the Motorsport Italia team, who were mounting a challenge, saw their lead driver Miki Biasion run into problems just prior to the second checkpoint. The Italian came through CP2 in 19th, nearly four minutes and 30 seconds adrift of the time stamped by Tchaguine.
The comeback in the event since entering Africa belongs to Hans Stacey who placed the MAN TGA second in today's stage, the Dutchman moved into fifth overall from 44th in just two days!
"Today I had to drive very fast most of the stage as well as to be safe and slow to negotiate a few passages," explained Stacey of his run today. "There were a huge dunes and I have been very impressed by all the spectators who had come to watch this first stage in the sand. I am very satisfied with this second place."
With a new turbo, Kabirov grabbed third, not only on the special, but also overall. Alas, he is over 60 minutes adrift of his compatriot as the two previous Dakar winners attempt to stand on top of the Truck podium on January 15th.
"Today, I have been able to clock a good time since I had no technical problem. Because, since Lisbon, I haven't been lucky," admitted the Russian. "I think I will go on at the same pace till the end in Dakar. And why not get one of the places on the podium..."
Quietly running his own rally is Karel Loprais, the Tatra driver has finished in the top ten and today's third place moved him into second overall. The Czech may be an hour behind but the face of Dakar can change at any time.
Tuesday will see fast speeds along the 350km special taking the teams from Ouarzazate to Tan Tan for their final trek along the open desert of Morocco. However, hazards can slow them down and may cause some to fall back while others may charge ahead.