Carlos Sainz has taken his first Dakar Rally victory on his fourth attempt, finishing the grueling 15-day cross-country event just two minutes and 12 seconds ahead of his Volkswagen Motorsport teammate Nasser Al-Attiyah. The Qatari veteran had been inching up on Sainz in the second half of the rally, and the last few legs saw fierce intra-team competition as both men aimed for their maiden Dakar victories.
"I have fulfilled a dream by winning the Dakar," said the relieved Sainz at the finish. "An enormous weight has fallen from my shoulders particularly as the fight for victory was extremely hard both physically and enormously exhausting mentally. I'm incredibly happy to have achieved this goal after having been so close to victory on several occasions."
Sainz, who became the first Spaniard to win the overall Car category at the Dakar Rally, had looked set to claim the honours last year after leading his teammate Giniel de Villiers by over 27 minutes with just three stages to go, but fates intervened: he crashed out in a wadi that was more dangerous than Sainz and co-driver Michel Perin believed.
"I'm very disappointed and I'm very sorry for the team that we're out," he said after the decisive stage in 2009. "But I'm hoping that our team will win in the end anyhow."
Volkswagen did take a 1-2 victory in 2009, with de Villiers at the front, and this year Sainz was able to make amends and lead a trio of Volkswagen Race Touaregs into a 1-2-3 finish. Mark Miller completed the trio, some 33 minutes behind Sainz.
The third World Rally Champion to win Dakar -- Ari Vatanen and Juha Kankkunen are the others -- Sainz's name will be inscribed into the history books, but he gave full credit to the Volkswagen Motorsport team. "Everything ran perfectly for me: My co-driver Lucas Cruz did an excellent job, from the technical side the Race Touareg ran like clockwork and the entire Volkswagen squad worked tirelessly for the win."
This time around Sainz's lead had been just 2:48 entering today's final 206-km special stage, which would return the competitors to Buenos Aires, so the stage was set for a race to the finish line. Al-Attiyah and Sainz started two and six minutes behind 13th-stage winner Stephane Peterhansel, respectively, and at the 66-km mark, their times were separated by just four seconds -- in Al-Attiyah's favour, but by then his chances of catching the Spaniard were getting slimmer yet.
He took another 14 seconds off of Sainz before checkpoint 1, and six more by the 177-km mark, but with a nearly 2 1/2-minute gap remaining and just 29 km of the special left, all the Qatari could do at that point was to drive for the glory of the final stage victory. And that much he did, by a margin of 36 seconds over Sainz. Al-Attiyah took his fourth stage win in this year's event and the 10th of his career.
"On the one hand it goes without saying that it's tough to have just missed winning the Dakar," Al-Attiyah admitted. "However, on the other hand, I got the chance with Volkswagen to live my 'Dakar' dream all the way to the finish line, for which I am thankful. I feel completely at home in this team and look forward to every day with the squad."
Al-Attiyah, who was driving a Race Touareg at Dakar for the first time, had nothing but respect for his teammate, after the two front-runners' tempers had risen during the hard-fought 13th special yesterday.
"Carlos Sainz is a worthy winner and a real champion. Second place behind him is a fantastic result," said Al-Attiyah. "Now I'm looking forward to challenge him at the forthcoming Dakar."
Miller, who had finished second last year behind de Villiers, was satisfied with the event, even though he had not been consistently on Sainz's and Al-Attiyah's pace throughout the event.
"It was small things that made the difference between winning and third place," he recollected. "I salute Carlos Sainz who drove almost faultless and who made the least amount of mistakes. It's just these small things that make the difference. My goal is to be better with the details in the future."
Volkswagen Motorsport director Kris Nissen, too, was satisfied with the battle for victory amongst his drivers. "The Volkswagen drivers fought amongst themselves for victory all the way to the chequered flag -- sometimes by hard but fair means. This is exactly how we imagine motorsport to be. My congratulations therefore go to every Volkswagen duo who would all have been worthy winners."
Behind the happy drivers on the Volkswagen Motorsport juggernaut, it was not all smiles, though. Sven Quandt's semi-works BMW X-Raid had committed a massive effort to challenge for victory, and the team's BMW X3 CC proved to be a fast competitor if not as robust as the Race Touareg. The team had recruited two top-notch drivers in Peterhansel and Joan 'Nani' Roma to challenge VW's Sainz, Al-Attiyah and de Villiers.
However, things did not go according to plan -- though they rarely do at Dakar!
Peterhansel was able to keep pace with Sainz, and scored four stage victories along the way. But it was a fifth-stage axle failure that forced Peterhansel and co-driver Jean-Paul Cottret to perform impromptu repairs en route and then finish the 483-km stage with only two driving wheels. That day cost the nine-time Dakar winner two hours and fourteen minutes -- just three minutes short of the two-hour seventeen-minute deficit to Sainz at the finish.
Peterhansel could rue of what could have been, "if only" -- but the French veteran adopted a positive outlook.
"It was a hard and very enjoyable Dakar for me, Jean-Paul and the team," he said. "I led the way at the start today and pushed a little, but not too hard, because I knew that Nasser Al-Attiyah was behind. Except for the problems on the fifth day it has been a great success for us. We claimed four stage wins. That one problem cost us at least a podium and maybe something even better."
For BMW's Guerlain Chicherit, it was a big improvement from 2009's eighth-place finish, who cut his deficit to the winners from nearly fifteen hours to four, and moved up to a fifth-place finish overall. But electrical problems delayed him by nearly an hour on the first stage, and multiple problems after that built up to the four-hour gap at the end.
"I suppose we came here looking for a little more than fourth and fifth, but it was still a very good result for us. I had the big loss of time early on and it was a case of fighting back after that."
Meanwhile, Roma's rally was cut short. After an impressive opening-stage victory, the Spaniard rolled his X3 on the second stage, losing fifteen minutes, and then slid into a hole on the third stage, forcing the team to withdraw the car after overnight repairs turned out to be impossible.
Carlos Sousa took sixth for the JMB Stradale team in an ex-works Mitsubishi Racing Lancer. The privateer team proved that they could be competitive even without factory support or highly-paid "name" drivers, and Sousa was followed by Orlando Terranova in ninth Guilherme Spinelli, putting three of the team's cars into the top ten -- and all five cars finished the rally in the top 13.
"If we had more engine power, the stage could have been interesting however we found it long and boring", Sousa joked after yesterday's penultimate stage. "We even would have liked to have played music in order to pass the time!"
De Villiers finished seventh in the fourth Race Touareg, behind Sousa, five hours and ten minutes behind Sainz. The South African was philosophical about the course of the rally, which saw him lose three hours and drop out of contention after an end-over-end tumble on the third stage.
"The operation 'title defence' was already over on the third day of the rally for my co-driver Dirk von Zitzewitz and I when we lost several hours due to an electrical problem after an end-over-end," he reflected. "From then on we put ourselves at the service of the team, as others also did for us in 2009."
Last year's third-place finisher, Robby Gordon, also found the going tougher this time, and his Hummer H3 dropped back into the Mitsubishi territory, 52 minutes behind de Villiers and just over two minutes in front of Terranova.
"We'll have to go back and go through all of our notes from this year so that we can be better for next year's Dakar Rally," Gordon said before rushing off to fly to the USA for the opening round of the SCORE off-road race in Laughlin, Nevada.
"A top-10 finish is still impressive considering just how difficult this race is -- both on people and equipment. I am just disappointed that we didn't get another podium finish this year, but we will come back next year and be that much stronger because of it. We won't give up, and I'm confident in our race team that we have what it takes to be competitive against the world's best. We've proven that time and time again. We build great race cars and have a good team; we'll be back next year looking for a Dakar Rally overall win."