The Dakar battle rages on... only one day remains
The battle raged for 11 days with Nasser Al-Attiyah doggedly hanging on to his vastly more experienced team mate, two time WRC champion Carlos Sainz -- something just had to give -- and in the form of Sainz's front suspension, it did... ironically it was being unsighted by Al-Attiyah's dust is what caused him to hit the hole which tore off his wheel.
With an hour's advantage Al-Attiyah is now all but home, but to put his ascendancy into perspective, in the only arena the two have met before, the WRC, Al-Attiyah has but a single point to his name... whereas Sainz held the all time record until the FIA changed the WRC point system from top 8 to top 10. Yet it is far from a mentor and prot?g? relationship, under the VW umbrella the two of them are locked in a bitter inter-team rivalry and every kilometre fought between them has been tooth and nail.
Today though with the pressure completely off his shoulders team boss Kris Nissen must have been hoping that winner-in-waiting Al-Attiyah was not distracted by the images of chequered flags waving in front of his eyes as he slithered through the stage drenched by the previous night's thunderstorms.
Sainz was a broken man yesterday telling reporters that fighting for second or third means nothing to him... but third means a lot to Stephane Peterhansel whose BMW is behind the Volkswagen team drivers and to the VW management as well, as a clean sweep of the podiums would be very good press indeed.
Peterhansel, the Dakar's winningest man, didn't claim his nine titles by being conservative and settling for position, he has an ingrained need to fight and he duly set off at full speed leading for the first 177km until... guess what... yes, the bane of his 2011 campaign struck again, another tyre blew, pretty much putting pay to his chances of grabbing third place. But his troubles weren't over yet, an over-heating engine due to a damaged radiator conspired to make his day a fair reflection of his whole event.
"Today was like the rest of the rally. There's always something that isn't working," said Peterhansel. "When it's not the rocks, it's the thorns like what happened twice today. As a result, we put a hole in the radiator and we lost water. We had a puncture too. What with all the punctures and repairs, we had to stop 4 times, which must total around ten minutes lost. Every day there is something that goes wrong. This morning, we set off to attack, we really wanted to battle it out, not go out for a jaunt. But it never rains, it only pours..."
Peterhansel's charge probably wouldn't have come to all that much anyway. Starting in 14th position Sainz had ten cars to pass, but once with a clear road in front he demonstrated why he has 26 WRC wins to his name and by the 294km mark had the fastest split time. As determined as he was to prove a point and show what could have been by the end he was still only 2'43 ahead of his 2009 Dakar winner team mate, Giniel de Villiers and 6'11 in front of Al-Attiyah.
Sainz said, "It went well. This victory is a small consolation. We drove well. We had to overtake a lot of competitors. There was a lot of dust and we had a puncture. But the main thing is that we finished the day and Stephane Peterhansel didn't get any closer to us. This 23rd stage victory is a good thing, but it wasn't our goal. Peterhansel has 23 as well, so we'll have to see who can get the record tomorrow".
Al-Attiyah could have taken a picnic with him today and still finished the day in the lead, but one of the obstacles to a famous victory is now safely out of the way, just tomorrow's 190km between him and victory. "It's a very difficult feeling, you know because you need a lot of concentration from the start until the finish. You don't want to make any mistakes. It really was the hardest stage of my life, because I had to keep concentrated and not make any mistakes. Sometimes I was going fast, sometimes slow because I needed to keep my concentration and keep the same pace, but it was ok. We finished the stage without any problems and I'm really quite happy."
Today's route followed mostly well-defined tracks, so unlike the desert and dunes there wasn't so much emphasis on navigation so by leading the field off, yesterday's winner Cyril Despres wasn't at such a disadvantage. Indeed he was leading for 487km of the 555km, at one CP up by 2'30 no doubt riding with the determined grit of his never-give-up attitude, but near the end Marc Coma wrestled the time back and came through to take the win, the 16th of his career, by a margin of 37 seconds. The Spaniard holds the overall lead by 16 minutes and 36 seconds.
"I had to go on the attack," said Despres. "It's a bit second nature for me anyway, so I've been going for it since the first kilometre, even if I slowed a bit at the end. At least it's good to not have any regrets. I gave it everything I had and it was a long day." For his chances of victory he was less enthusiast though. "My chances are looking slimmer. Mind you, it's not the end of the world, you know, you have to keep things in perspective".
Whereas understandably Coma was more upbeat. "There is still a 190-km stage left to race tomorrow. Normally, there shouldn't be any complications, but we still need to race them, it's there to be done. It just shows that the route has been designed to ensure that there is suspense up to the end, so we'll just have to wait and see tomorrow".
Neither of the top KTM riders are under pressure from the local rider from Chile, Francisco Lopez Contardo, who will be a hero just placing third on his Aprilia.
The trucks ran on a shortened route today, being flagged off at the 237km point. All Vladimir Chagin had to do was drive safely and let his pursuer take all of the risks but in the end the attack from his team mate never materialised and he led from start to finish through every CP. Now the 'Tsar' has an unprecedented 7th class victory in his sights (Peterhansel has 9 wins, but 6 were on a bike and 3 were in the car class). Firdaus Kabirov is now a long, long way from being able to beat Chagin on speed alone and will have to wait for some misfortune to befall his team leader.
Should the results remain the same come tomorrow evening the Kamaz team will sweep the top four positions with rising star Eduard Nikolaev in third and Ilgizar Mardeev fourth, although after the hundreds and hundreds of extreme competitive kilometres, German Franz Echter is only 2 and a half minutes behind Mardeev, 5th in his MAN.
The leading positions in the quad class with Argentinean Alejandro Patronelli roughly an hour over Sebastian Halpern is pretty settled, but third is much less so with just a matter of minutes between Frenchman Christopher Declerck and 4th placed Pole Lukasz Laskwiec. So, riding for his podium place Declerck set off at full pace and indeed, over the whole 555 grueling kilometres was never headed.
Patronelli rode cautiously not risking any accidents or pushing his bike too hard, mindful that there is still another 190km stage between him and the top step of the podium tomorrow. He dropped 8'14 to second placed finisher Halpern which brings his lead to under an hour, but it still stand at a healthy 58'18.
The gap between 3rd and 4th though still hangs in the balance with everything to play for tomorrow. Today's winner only has 3'19 in hand over Laskwiec and he'll be opening the stage... so a single navigational error could cost him very dearly.
One more day. One more stage. But remember... in the Dakar nothing is written in stone. Come back tomorrow to see the report of the final stage.