The survivors of Dakar 2011 Edition celebrate their arrival in Buenos Aries, Argentina@@
Yesterday was the last real stage of the 2011 Dakar, all the huge, hardcore tests that the event is legendary for are over for another year and the thin field of survivors had to drive with a different mentality today. Just a short 180km test stood between those who had managed to make it to the start of Stage 13 and the finish.
With all of the most extreme conditions and mammoth sections that the event organisers and Mother Nature threw at the competitors all Nasser Al-Attiyah had to do was coast through the last hour and a bit of mud and dust trying to hold onto the steering wheel safely while his fingers were crossed in hope that nothing broke and co-driver Timo Gottschalk didn't get them lost.
Yesterday's Stage 12's 555km were the real test of whether Al-Attiyah had the nerve to drive conservatively, holding his advantage to take his first Dakar championship, and he passed, taking a lead of more than three quarters of an hour into the final stretch. The organisers, not exactly renowned for going out of their way to make things easy for the competitors, even diverted the route past a couple of muddy places... so his cruise to the finish was unhindered. To the cheers of a jubilant crowd, which included many Volkswagen team personnel, the Qatari came in just 38 seconds behind the day's winner Carlos Sainz, capping off an almost perfect score for VW... covering the podium with Al-Attiyah first, Sainz third and de Villiers quietly assuming second... with the team winning 12 out of the 13 stages.
A very happy and relieved Al-Attiyah said, "We did it. I am so happy! We drove a good, clean stage. I was just thinking about the finish line. It means a lot to win a Dakar, for me, for my people, for my country and for my team. It is a great victory. It's hard to explain everything that goes through your head. But it is a very nice feeling. We demonstrated that we have the strongest team in the world. It is the third time the team has won a Dakar. It is also the biggest moment in my career."
With a visually smaller crowd of press around him Sainz was obviously still reeling from the mistakes and suspension failure from a few days ago. "Before racing a Dakar, you know it will be tough. All Dakar raids are tough. It's like that. No, I am not disappointed. This is how the race goes. After two tough weeks, there is nothing left to say. I gave it my very best shot."
After 50 hours of racing over some of the most inhospitable terrain found anywhere on the planet the world's top 2 riders were only 16'34 apart this morning, but so evenly matched on their near identical machinery all Cyril Despres could hope for this morning was some kind of miraculous disaster to befall fellow KTM rider Marc Coma. By speed alone the gap would be absolutely insurmountable and by the split times it was obvious that he had no intention of fighting today anyway. Both he and Coma had an easy undramatic day to get to the finish and the status quo set yesterday was maintained as they crossed the line for Coma to claim his third Dakar Bike overall victory, adding to his 2006 and 2009 titles, bringing him equal with Despres on three wins apiece.
An emotional Coma told reporters gathered in the large crowds that surrounded the finish line just what the Dakar means to him. "Staying focused was essential so I did focus on my riding. It was the only way to win. What was really tough was that I could not let my guard down, not even for a second. When a tough was ending, the next one was even tougher. We all know that a Dakar is a difficult race but this year it was particularly difficult. This victory is the reward of all the hard work, the reward of many years and a lot of tensions over the last few days. It is the bonus you get for steering right and for so many sacrifices over the years.
"I have to pay tribute to all the people in my team, who supported me. We had ambitious goals and to reach them we had to have the best, people made for the Dakar and willing to all work towards the same goal. As anyone in the Dakar, we had tough times. So I am going to get some rest and think about the future. Because, truth is that with the race and the permanent tension I did not have time to think about anything else in a long time," added Coma.
Despres was understandably more reflective: "This special is different if you are in first place as it was the case last year... then you want the race to be shorter. When you are second, you would want the race to be longer. But anyway, the feeling of finishing a Dakar is always nice especially here with all the people welcoming you. I am sad I could not do better than this though I raced 11 Dakar, won 3 and ended 8 times on the podium. One more would have been great. But I just could not make any better. I made some mistakes; they were two small mistakes but they held some heavy consequences."
The subdued pace of the leaders allowed Despres' former team mate Dutchman Frans Verhoeven on his BMW through to take the win, and he had this to say about his victory, "I had a very good Dakar. I finished almost every day in the Top 10. It was my goal. There was just one very bad day where I have to change my engine in the stage and I lost 5h30. If I had not lost that time, I would have fought for fourth place. But that's not how it works. I am finishing 16th and I am pretty happy about it. [Today] I did some self-motivation and this morning, I was very focuses on the curves. I released the brakes a notch and I increased my puch another notch. I tried not to make mistakes despite the dust in front of me. I was pretty successful and I won the scratch."
But while the winners celebrated, it was heartbreak behind for Chilean Aprilia rider Francisco 'Chaleco' Lopez Contardo. He started the day 43'04 ahead of Portugal's Helder Rodrigues but a broken shock absorber just 22km from the end meant that the minutes evaporated as his team mate Alain Duclos towed him across the line, gifting Rodrigues and Yamaha a podium place at the very last moment.
The semi-truck works Kamaz Master team crew stood proud at the top of the leaderboard with an infallible 1-2-3 for the Russian 'Royal Family' with 'Tsar' Papa Vladimir Chagin out ahead of Uncle Firdaus Kabirov and their quickly maturing nephew Eduard Nikolaev. The main concern for the team today was whether Cousin Ilgizar Mardeev could hold off the determined charge of German MAN pilot Franz Echter.
Echter was in inspired form and held third place in all the split times, at one point nearly three minutes ahead of the 4th Kamaz, but with true Russian grit Mardeev pulled almost a minute back in the final 50km and took fourth by just a mere 41 seconds!!
With his 64th stage victory Chagin takes his 7th win, one step ahead of Kabirov and Nikolaev 3rd on his first drive in the Dakar. Maybe with this result we are watching the rise of the next Kamaz generation.
Chagin holds the all-time record of stage wins, plus the all-time Truck class overall title but his team mate/rival who has two Dakar championships was happy with the outcome. Kabirov said, "... what a joy, because we have three Kamaz trucks in the first three positions n the standings. Moreover, I also know that Vladimir Chagin is faster than me. He completely deserves this new victory."
The local fans had something to celebrate for the second year in a row in the Quad class. In 2010 they cheered the Partronelli brothers home in a famous 1 - 2 finish with Marcos leading his older brother Alejandro home. This year has the winner's trophy has the same surname on it, but Alejandro steps up to claim his first Dakar crown, just a few seconds less than an hour over fellow Argentinean Sebastian Halpern.
Overwhelmed with his achievement he gushed, "Tough. Real tough. If we analyze what happened, it's incredible. We had lost our momentum, Marcos had fallen. We should not be here actually. Getting back in the race, losing hope again, finding it back, losing it yet again when I broke my hand and I was unable to accelerate. There were still some 400 km left in that stage and still 7 or 8 to go, with a damaged hand. This is when I thought: 'if my hand can stand the 400 km, the rest will be able to hold on for the remaining 5,000 km'.
And here I am, Champion with one-and-a-half hand! What a reward. I had not won anything since 2000 and I am now Dakar's Number One! I just cannot believe it!" smiled the Argentinean.
The battle for the last step of the podium however, went all the way to this last stage. It was sudden death for French rider Christophe Declerck and Polish Yamaha rider Lukasz Laskawiec. With just a tiny 3'19 between the two of them, locked in battle, were well ahead of anyone else in the split times. At first it was Declerck with the advantage, but then Lukasz came back strong in the second half of the stage at took both the stage win and third place on the podium.
So the dust now settles over the plains, mountains and deserts of Chile and Argentina. The surviving cars will be cleaned and polished and the champagne put on ice. Tomorrow it's a procession entering Buenos Aires and if anyone has any energy left it will be one hell of a party... especially if you are wearing blue. Past masters with a new notch added to their tally will celebrate with new champions
So the dust now settles over the plains, mountains and deserts of Chile and Argentina. The surviving cars will be cleaned and polished and the champagne put on ice. Tomorrow it's a procession back to Buenos Aires and if anyone has any energy left it will be one hell of a party... especially if you are wearing blue. Past masters with a new notch added to their tally will celebrate with new champions... and those in the crowd will be looking back on the last two weeks with every conceivable human emotion. Some will be rejoicing the highest achievement of their lives while others next to them will be lamenting the cruelest of luck. There will be those lifting aloft trophies and below them, there will be many others who are happy with the fact that they came and tried. Dakar is an arena where dreams are made... and broken.
Check back soon to see our full post event coverage of the event.