Sainz wins, but Al-Attiyah still in control.
235km is relatively short on the Dakar scale, but after yesterday's long stage changed the leaderboard of three of the four classes, the loop around the vast dunes of the Atacama is still a real test for the whole field. The organizers shortened the special to 207km for the Car and Truck classes.
After doing what he'd been threatening for days and taking over the lead Al-Attiyah had two choices today, conserve or consolidate. Does he drive with restraint to preserve his 6 minute lead, with the risk of Sainz clawing time back, or does he attack the stage, running the risk of making a mistake and loosing the advantage? A tough choice when one of the most successful rally drivers of all time is just behind, but as he demonstrated to full effect yesterday, the Dunes are the Qatari's natural habitat so there was never really any doubt that he would be pushing ... yet Sainz was not to be outdone.
It was unbelievably close through the first part of the test. At CP1 33km in Al-Attayiah was leading as many expected but only by 16 seconds and then 'El Matador' demonstrated why he has such a reputation by clawing back time so that they were on exactly the same time after 66km and 7 seconds ahead at 106km. But it was a puncture that settled the story leaving Sainz free to take back a shade under two minutes from Al-Attiyah's lead and is now just 3'18" behind.
"I'm happy with my day, especially since dunes, desert and off-track terrain aren't my favourite type. We drove a good special. After 100 km we caught up with then overtook Nasser Al Attiyah. He had a puncture, but afterwards he clawed back a bit of time on us," said Sainz.
Al-Attayiah though wasn't too fazed and predicted that tactics will come into play tomorrow as Sainz will be setting off first. "We had a puncture and we lost time, but afterwards we came back again and caught Carlos Sainz, finishing in front of him. I'm quite happy to finish today without any problems. The car is working very well. Tomorrow it will be very interesting because we start in second position. As the first car, you always lose time. I am sure tomorrow will be better for us and we will try our best. We'll follow Carlos, just follow..."
Further back their VW team mate De Villiers overcame a fast starting Peterhansel (BMW), who at last had no tyre issues on the soft sand, to make it a VW 1-2-3 on the last day in Chile. Hanging on bravely to the coat-tails of the Top 10 in the outlandish looking SMG buggy is the German pairing of Kahle and Dr Schuenemann. In yesterday's 508km monster, the longest stage so far, they came in a noteworthy 8th overall and today, utilising the lightness of the buggy, as well as the CTIS (Central tyre inflation system) that allows them to control tyre pressures from inside the cab, they ran solidly, consolidating their already very impressive 7 and a half hour lead over second place in class runner Ronan Chabot.
A cautious run from both title protagonists saw American Johan Street streak through on his Yamaha to take a surprise victory on today's stage. Due to the wide open expanses of the Atacama dunes the bikes were sent off in groups of 10 rather than individually but after just 20 kilometres most of the first group followed each other down a wrong turn leaving a sole rider, Portuguese Helder Rodrigues out in front alone looking like he was gifted a win thanks to the collective mistake, but unfortunately for him his day came to an ignominious end when he a short detour to find a missed point caused him to run out of fuel. "It's terrible," he said, "but that's rallying for you!" And he made the point that Felipe Prohens was kind enough to stop and siphon some fuel so he was able to complete the stage.
Street commented, "I had to start in the third wave, which was good and bad; good that everyone up front knew their position and were taking it easy and I got to charge through .... then in the last dunes, I think when there were only 3 bikes in front of me I went over the handlebars hard, straight into the sand, totally unannounced, but I was okay.
"Today we didn't have any bike problems, everything went really smooth, so I'm happy. It's awesome. You know what? We've been capable of it all rally, it just hasn't fallen into our plate. It's awesome, totally awesome. It's what we come here to do, to do the best we can and first is the best you can do, so to win a stage pretty special," smiled Street.
It was a rather uneventful day for the two leaders, both on KTMs. If either of them had been on the ball enough at the 20km mark to take the initiative and head the right way then maybe the leaderboard would have looked a little different, but as they rode together in the same group it stays the same, Marc Coma ahead of Cyril Despres by 8' 14" and Francisco Lopez Contardo, who is leaving his home country tomorrow holding on 23'33" back.
Overall leader Coma had this to say about the day. "With the grouped start and the fog, the start of the stage and the navigation was very difficult. In the first group, we got lost, turning right when we shouldn't have. When we got back on track the second wave caught up with us. It was a bit of a mess. After that, a group of around twenty quick riders formed and we managed to ride the rest of the stage normally. But in the end, it was a difficult day"
Yesterday's winner Alejandro Patronelli rode his Yamaha with confidence today and pulled away from Czech rider Josef Machacek at each CP to win by a comfortable 5' 21". He was 17' 51 ahead of closest title rival Sebastian Halpern who could only manage 4th overall and therefore extended his overall lead to very healthy 1 hour and 9 minutes.
It wasn't as dominant a drive as we saw with yesterday's performance but for most of the stage it looked the Vladimir Chagin was going to add to his new-found lead... but that was until his Kamaz team mate Firdaus Kabirov decided to turn up the pressure and he over came a mid point deficit of 5 minutes and turned it into a 7' 38" advantage, meaning that he also regained the lead of the class. And this may come to be a critical point in the rally, as the only challenger to the domination of the Russians, Ales Loprais in the bright yellow Tatra, stopped at the 77km and is not yet registered as a finisher. This means that to preserve the Kamaz lock-out of the podium positions team orders may be issued.
Tomorrow starts with a 686km liaison across the border and back into Argentina where a very technical 176km section awaits the surviving crews. It was run in the opposite direction last year and claimed enough victims to make all those with leads and cushions to protect nervous... all except perhaps Al-Attiyah the acknowledged dune expert who will be hoping to put some more precious time between himself and his team mate Sainz.
At the time of this story, the Dakar results for today were still pending.