Dakar 2011 - A review of the first six stages
The first week of the Dakar Rally was a triumph for Volkswagen: they have led the rally from day one, and won five of six stages. After taking the first four places during yesterday's stage, the German car manufacturer is firmly in command of the overall standings with their top drivers Carlos Sainz and Nassar Al-Attiyah. The only real remaining threat for VW is the BMW piloted by Stephane Peterhansel, but he is already almost 15 minutes behind the two VW drivers. If BMW want to win the 2011 edition of the Dakar Rally, they need a miracle, as the two other BMW drivers, Krzysztof Holowczyc (5th) and Orlando Terranova (7th) are 1:13:19 and 1:37:54 respectively behind Spaniard Sainz. It looks like the top three will be battling for the victory, but Peterhansel's chances of an overall victory have become uncomfortably slim.
The story of the trucks is similar to the cars, as the almighty Russian Kamaz team is leading the overall standings for the sixth consecutive day, Russians Firdaus Kabirov and Vladimir Chagin are leading the truck rankings, while Czech Tatra driver Ales Loprais is third. Chagin has won three stages, Kabirov two and Loprais one. The rest of the trucks are already more than one and a half hours behind the leaders, again it seems like the top three will be battling for the overall victory. But it is still Dakar, one strike of bad luck and the rally is over, many cars and trucks have already been eliminated the past week.
The Austrian KTM team is in command of the bike standings; currently Spaniard Marc Coma is leading the rankings, followed by Frenchman Cyril Despres, third is the Aprilia of Chilean Francisco Lopez Contardo, who is already 22 minutes behind the leader. Portuguese Helder Rodrigues is the best Yamaha driver on place four, the best BMW driver Dutchman Frans Verhoeven is in eighth place with a little over an hour behind Coma. Two American riders are still in the running, Jonah Street (Yamaha) is seventh, and Quinn Alexis Cody (Honda) is in 12th position overall.
The rally really kicked off on Sunday with a special stage from Victoria to Cordoba in Argentina, a mountainous route with narrow tracks where overtaking was difficult. The drivers and riders were surprised by rain, and Sainz even compared the stage with the Rally of Great Britain. American Robby Gordon of the Hummer team started in fourth place, but finished in eight place. "We knew that the Hummer team would not be as strong as we would like in the Argentina portion of the race, but we struggled a little bit more today than I would have liked due to the weather conditions," Gordon explained.
Two trucks had to retire from the rally during stage one. The Ginaf of Dutchman Wulfert van Ginkel crashed hard on the motorway on its way to the start of the stage. His truck hit a piece of metal which pierced his right front tyre, the tyre exploded and sent van Ginkel's truck into a frightening summersault before it crashed into the barrier. The truck was a total loss, but fortunately neither of the occupants were seriously injured. Bad luck for Dutchman Gerard de Rooy as well, his Iveco hit a bump, landed hard and de Rooy injured his back and had to retire. He flew back to the Netherlands and the next day x-ray images revealed he had sustained a hairline crack in one of his vertebrae.
In the bike category, Portuguese Ruben Faria won the stage, but he lost his victory to Despres again after the organizers had handed him a ten minute penalty after his GPS data had revealed he had breached the speed limits.
Stage two was from Cordoba to San Miguel de Tucuman, a stage through a bumpy forest track and bushy terrain, and again the riders and drivers were surprised by heavy rain. The terrain suited the VW Touaregs the best, and although Sainz had visibility problems because his wind screen wipers didn't work properly, he crossed the finish line in first position, and was followed by Al-Attiyah and Peterhansel. The third VW of Giniel de Villiers finished in fourth position.
The stage became a drama for Gordon, his Hummer hit a rock when he missed a corner. His Hummer sustained damage at the front, and when he tried to reverse his car, the reverse gear broke and it took him almost an hour to get the Hummer back on the track and to repair the damage. Gordon finished in 47th place. Another American, Mark Miller (VW), lost time after he also had missed a corner and his car had rolled over. Miller, "In a bend, we skidded and lost control of the car. We rolled over before we could get back on the track. After that, we had to stop and repair, especially the power steering." He was able to continue, but finished in 43rd place, 52 minutes behind Sainz.
Although the bikes and quads took a different route, the weather conditions were the same. Despres won the stage after Faria was given an one minute penalty. "Today the track was full of bends and very skiddy, like a 300-km giant slalom with jumps, like skiing," Despres commented after he had crossed the finish line. Kamaz drivers Chagin and Kabirov battled for first and second position, but Chagin ran into technical problems and his team colleague Kabirov took the stage win and became the leader in the truck standings.
Stage three was from San Miguel de Tucuman to San Salvador de Jujuy, the first part was through the desert, the second part through mountainous forested terrain. Al-Attiyah was the fasted VW driver and won the stage just ahead of Sainz. "We had lost a minute and a half to Al-Attiyah by the end of the first section, but in the end we made up most of the time we lost by pushing more on the last section where there was less navigation," said Sainz after he had finished only 25 seconds behind his team colleague. Sainz remained in the overall lead, followed by Al-Attiyah and Peterhansel.
Chagin did what everyone expected him to do, and made up for the time he lost the day before, and finished 6m45s ahead of Kabirov, who lost the lead in the truck standings to Chagin again. In the bike category leader Despres lost valuable time after he got lost during the first part of the stage, Coma won the stage 2m21s ahead of Despres, who still led the overall rankings, but only with 14 seconds. Coma was happy with his race, "This was really an authentic Dakar day: the first part with lots of navigation, then more riding on the rest."
Stage four led from San Salvador de Jujuy to Calama, the relatively short route of 207 km went over the Andes mountains, with the arrival in Chili. For KTM rider Coma it was an important day, he took over the lead from Despres after he had won the stage just 16 seconds ahead of his rival. "It was difficult to open the way, I'm happy and I felt great," the Spaniard said. But he was also cautious on his chances, "The general standings don't matter for the moment. The most important thing will be the last day."
Again both VW drivers Sainz and Al-Attiyah were fighting for the lead, Sainz took his third stage win, Al-Attiyah followed him in second place, and Peterhansel took third place. A flat tyre had slowed Peterhansel down. "It could have been a good day because we were in the lead at the intermediate points. But we got a flat tyre and had to change the wheel, which took two or three minutes," the Frenchman commented after he had arrived at the finish line.
For Gordon and his Hummer the fourth stage was the end of his Dakar ambitions. A wheel bearing broke, and with little time for the support vehicle to bring him the new bearing, Gordon ran out of time and was automatically disqualified. "Disappointed doesn't even begin to describe the way I'm feeling right now, not only for me but for everyone involved," a bitterly disappointed Gordon said. "While it may not appear like it due to our performance thus far, countless hours went into this effort. To have a wheel bearing fail is just sickening, a huge, huge disappointment."
Truck 'Tsar' Chagin again won the stage, and left no doubt about his goal this year: to win the rally for the seventh time. After the fourth stage he was leading the overall standings, followed by Kabirov and Tatra driver Loprais. Fourth was the MAN of German Franz Echter, but he is 46m08s behind the leader, the second fastest MAN of Dutchman Marcel van Vliet is in tenth place.
Stage five was the first very difficult stage, a 423 km long stage from Calama to Iquique, which led through dunes and the huge sandy hills of the Attacama desert, but with a great reward: the last few kilometers was up a huge sandy hill, once at the top the drivers overlooked the finish and the bivouac at Iquique, with the ocean on the background. The last two kilometers were downhill at an 32 degree angle, for some of the bikes too steep, as the fuel in the tank couldn't reach the engine anymore, and the engine cut off, and they had to freewheel down the hill in the deep sand, sometimes at speeds of over 150 km.
During this stage many competitors got into real trouble, many riders fell and damaged their bike, many drivers got stuck in the sand and needed assistance to free their car or truck, many got lost in the desert, in other words: the Dakar Rally at its best. But stage five became Peterhansel's day, for the first time this week he beat both Sainz and Al- Attiyah. "We started with the bit between our teeth. We managed to overtake Al-Attiyah and Sainz by taking advantage of a navigation error they made," a happy Peterhansel said. The top three in the car rankings remained the same, Sainz was still leading, followed by his shadow Al-Attiyah, and Peterhansel.
The bikes also had huge problems, navigation was difficult, but Portuguese Paulo Goncalves was the first to reach the finish. Second place went to local hero Chilean Lopez Contardo. "It was really difficult today. The navigation was extremely complicated, but that's the Dakar," the Aprilia rider said. "The race really started today. It was a genuine day of rally- raiding with technical problems an lots of navigation," he added. Americans Street and Cody finished in eighth and 22nd position respectively, and after stage five, were eighth and 15th in the overall standings. Frenchman Olivier Pain (Yamaha) crashed out of the rally, he fell and broke his wrist 231 km into the stage.
A bad stage for Kamaz driver Chagin, he became fourth and lost the lead to Kabirov who scored his second stage victory. Chagin entered into stage six yesterday, 13m36s behind Kabirov, while Loprais started more than 25 minutes behind the leader.
Stage six led from Iquique to Arica, a true monster stage of 456 km, with a lot of navigation, and a sea of endless sand dunes, a stage that stretched the limits of man and machine. The stage became a disaster for Peterhansel, who had four flat tyres, changing a tyre in the deep sand is never a job to look forward to. "We only had three spare wheels, so we had to stop regularly to inflate that last wheel. We paid for our setbacks quite heavily today. It's bad news before the rest day," a disappointed Peterhansel commented. He also missed a waypoint and had to drive back, which again cost him time, he lost 12m25s to leader Sainz, and is now 14m51s behind him in the overall standings.
Sainz had a good day and is currently still the leader in the car rankings, he is followed by Al-Attiyah, who is now 2m42s behind him. Although he won the stage again, Sainz did complain about yesterday's stage, "I don't like this kind of stage. They are difficult and dangerous." American Miller (VW) finished in fourth position, and is now in sixth position of the overall ranking.
For the trucks an extraordinary difficult stage, they had to take huge risks to ensure they didn't get stuck in the sand dunes with their heavy trucks. Many of them got stuck on the sharp top ridges of the huge sand dunes, and needed help from the service teams or passing competitors to free their truck. Once out of the sand, it was down the dune again, turn around, and try to gain enough speed and momentum to this time hopefully get over the crest at the second attempt. Other trucks rolled over on their side on the steep dunes, and also had to wait for assistance to get their truck back on four wheels again.
Kamaz driver Kabirov was once again faster than Chagin, but it was Loprais' Tatra that won the stage. Kamaz had so far dominated the rally, and Loprais' goal is a podium place. "We are just one Tatra here against an army of six trucks from Russia," the Czech said. "But we will keep on pushing, that's our goal, we would like to target the podium at least," he added.
Competitors on stage six, who started yesterday, had until today 16.00 PM local time to reach the finish in Arica, close to the Peruvian border. Not all of them have yet arrived there, many riders and drivers had to spend the night in the desert, waiting for spare parts, or simply because they were lost or too tired to race on through the night.
Today's rest day isn't a rest day for everyone, while the top drivers can rest, catch some sleep and gather new energy for the next stage, many of the lesser gods have to service their own vehicles, repair broken parts, or shop for spare parts at other teams. Many of the service and backup trucks haven't made it to Arica, and the Iveco trucks don't have enough spare parts, as one of the Iveco service trucks went up in flames, and all spare parts were lost too.
The next stage will be on Sunday, and goes from Arica to Antofagasta, the longest special stage of the 2011 Dakar Rally. The stage is divided into two timed sections, and there is a special route for the bikes and quads. Many drivers and riders have had little sleep, and had to work hard during the past seven days, but they have one thing in common: they simply do not want to give up, and have set their sight to the arrival in Buenos Aires next week.