Mikko Jalonen, Dakar correspondent
Coma takes the stage, Despres still in lead at the bike category
After the decision yesterday to cancel stage 6 due to hard rain and snow, most of the riders and drivers got some extra time to repair and get ready to return to action today as the caravan has now moved from Argentina over to Chile. The seventh stage was in the form of a loop featuring a 419km special stage of the landscape near the bivouac of Copiapo. The special stage marks the halfway point of the 2012 Dakar edition and it offered the first taste for the riders and drivers about what is to come in the tough and extremely long Chilean stages.
The Hummer H3s controlled the seventh stage for the Car category with the Qatari, Nasser Al-Attiyah taking the stage honor in front of his teammate, Robby Gordon by a margin of 7 minutes and 30 seconds. For both crews in the Robby Gordon prepared Team SPEED Hummers, the stage followed a similar pattern where after the second checkpoint the Hummers were placed 6th and 11th, and by the third checkpoint two team mates had taken the lead and never looked back. Al-Attiyah has not through thrown in the towel for the overall win despite being sixth in the Car standings; almost 43 minutes behind the overall leader Stephane Peterhansel in a MINI.
And today we did it perfectly.
“The car worked perfectly well today and we attacked from the beginning to the end of the special. We took a lot of risks to set the best time,” said Al-Attiyah. “Our objective is to claw back seven or eight minutes every day. And today we did it perfectly. We will do our best to repeat this performance in all stages from Monday onwards, or even try to do better. At any rate, we have no other choice if we still want to win the Dakar!”
Today´s second-placed driver Gordon had another interesting day behind the wheel of his Hummer. Gordon lost time at the first few checkpoints, even stopping for 3 to 5 minutes almost straight after the first checkpoint. Despite his problems, Gordon managed to beat Peterhansel on the stage and even managed to climb up to third in the overall standings. “It really was a perfect day for the Hummers! I had a flat 25 km into the first special and Peterhansel overtook me, but we were later able to move back ahead of him,” explained Gordon.
“We will see exactly how much time we gained on him, but it is obvious that our car is extremely fast on this type of terrain. It is easy to see that it was designed for this sort of stages. We have also changed a lot of things, including the transmission, and it is now a fearsome machine. In fact, I am sure Nasser is going to win this thing... OK, the others are still ahead, but I think we are in a very good position for the rest of the rally,” added the American team owner and driver.
Third today was the overall leader, Peterhansel who again did a great job on the special stage. After the second checkpoint things were looking excellent for the All4Racing MINI driver to take a stage win when he was just 30 seconds behind his teammate, (Joan) Nani Roma and more than a minute ahead of the stage winner, Al-Attiyah. The dune section at the end of the stage made the difference and Peterhansel finished third overall. For the Frenchman however, this fits very well as he doesn´t have to start the eighth stage as the first car on the road.
Thus after seven stages, Peterhansel now leads the Car classification by nearly 12 minutes by 11 in front of the MINI of X-raid team mate Krzysztof Holowczyk and by just 13 minutes over the Hummer of Gordon.
Peterhansel said, “I expected the dunes to be tougher, but at the end it was a mix with camel grass. We never came close to getting stuck. There was a moment when we overtook Gordon, who had just stopped due to a flat tyre, but he later caught up with us and then overtook us at full speed. We tried to follow him but it was impossible. With his wide clearings, he was able to jump over the gaps! If we attempted to go that fast, we would roll over twice. We suffer a bit in these open desert areas.”
In the Bike category, KTM rider Marc Coma kept the pressure on the shoulders of the overall leader, Cyril Despres, by winning the seventh special stage by 2 minutes and 3 seconds in front of the Frenchman. Since the fourth stage, the two top KTM riders have been splitting the stage wins. Coma has done everything he could to catch his rival and is happy with his riding so far but knows that the catching of Despres will be extremely difficult.
“It is common knowledge that the stage before the rest day is always difficult, and today was not an exception, with stifling heat and very soft sand. Nevertheless, we rode very fast and I was able to attack. I gained 2 minutes on Cyril but that is obviously not enough! We know the strategy well, so we are aware that I will probably gain two minutes one day, then Cyril will gain two minutes the next... And it is hard to change this when there is but one road,” said Coma. “Anyway, we are second in the general classification on the rest day and everything is going smoothly, so it has been a good rally for us so far.“
Second fastest today was the Frenchman who continues to hold onto the overall lead. Despres rode today without taking any significant risks by being the first bike on the road. He even felt lazy and despite being defeated by the Spaniard today, is ready to strike back on the following special stage after the rest day. Despres admitted, “I was a bit lazy today, since Marc led the race from km 200 onwards, the start of the second special, but I think that is also part of the race. So I thank him for this.
“There is always a strategic aspect, since we know we can control two-minute gaps. Having said that, I finished with my hands paralysed, but it was a really beautiful special with beautiful dunes... And it feels go to lead the race on the rest day. I am happy,”added the Frenchman.
Portuguese Husqvarna rider, Paolo Goncalves was the third fastest today and missed the stage victory just by a small gap of less than three minutes. Goncalves had a slow start for the rally but has been improving day-by-day and in the overall Bike standings is now already fourth overall but he has close to an hour gap from the Despres. Still he can reach the podium as he is just 6 minutes from taking third which is held by Yamaha rider, Helder Rodrigues. Being the best of rest of the competitiors behind Despres and Coma was the goal for Goncalves before the event.
“This was a very good stage for me and I am very happy about my good time, but especially because I had fun riding on the dunes, although the very soft sand made things difficult. I put time into my rivals, except Marc and Cyril, of course, so it was a good stage for me. Now, I will try to use the rest day to start the second week at the same rhythm and try to keep on going like this, every day, until Lima,” said Concalves.
Stage 1 winner, Francisco “Chaleco” Lopez, took a nasty fall just past the first checkpoint. At the time, he was second and appeared to be on his way to a possible second stage victory. The Aprilia rider was reported as being nine minutes off the pace at CP2 and was obviously in a lot of pain. The Chilean pushed himself to make it to the finish but is now listed nihth in the overall. Tomorrow is a rest day and no doubt his fans will be cheering him on; especially those in his homeland but “Chaleco” commented that his 2012 Dakar might have come to an early end.
“I fell in the first part of the special - not very hard, but enough to re-awaken the pain in my right knee. In the second part of the special I suffered so much on the dunes that I was hardly able to ride. I do not know, but I fail to see how I could continue tomorrow. Fortunately, tomorrow is the rest day, so I will see the bivouac doctors and call mine, but I think my Dakar has come to an end. I am in a world of pain right now,” said Lopez.
In the overall race, Despres still keeps the lead as he is 7 minutes and 48 seconds ahead of Coma while Rodrigues is third overall, 49 minutes and 39 seconds behind Despres.
Yamaha rider Alejandro Patronelli kept everything together and won today’s stage with a margin of just over 17 minutes in the Quad category. The Argentinean is the defending champion and today he made no errors while his main rivals, including his brother Marcos, lost time.
Overall leader Patronelli said, “A very beautiful and fast stage. There was also a great deal of navigational work to do, spanning over 200 kilometres. The stage was very interesting. I finished among the 30 first riders of the motorcycle classification. That is good.”
It was Ignacio Casale, also on a Yamaha, who placed third in the first special stage in his homeland. The Chilean had a great ride and perhaps a slight advantage due to his knowledge of the route and the expected conditions. Still he is three hours behind the overall Quad leader by three hours and remains in fifth in the class standings. First stage winner, Sergio La Fuente placed third and like Casale, he had a good run plus the good luck that they both ended up with when two of the top three ran into difficulties.
Tomas Maffei ended fifth on the stage, costing him 54 minutes to the special stage winner as he stopped on the route and ended up in the bottom of the classification but the Argentinean fought back; however the chunk of time lost could cost him a Dakar victory as he is now nearly one hour off the pace of Alejandro Patronelli.
On the other hand, Marcos Patronelli, who won Dakar in 2010, lost a chunk of time between the 280km to the 310km of the special due to a navigational error. While his brother crossed the finish line, Marcos had not yet reached the third checkpoint. He finished on his Yamaha back in 11th, nearly 90 minutes behind his brother and in the overall, he is third but the gap to his brother is now 1:21:35!
“This stage was very long! I made a mistake at km 230. I took a wrong turn and did not realise I had until much later. I lost 30 kilometres due to this mistake - quite a lot of time,” explained Marcos Patronelli. “Therefore, I rode at a reasonable pace for the rest of the stage. What else could I do?”
The 2011 Dakar winner has a nice cushion as the riders will get much needed rest tomorrow before taking on the eighth stage on Monday, January 9. Alejandro Patronelli commented, “But the general classification is not the most important thing. There is still a long way to go. Of course, this classification means a lot and means nothing at the same time. Look at what happened to Marcos. He lost over an hour. He is so stubborn... I had told him to wait for me.”
In the Truck category, the outcome was more or less expected as the de Rooy Iveco team took another stage win. Team owner and driver Gerard de Rooy scored a hat trick today! It was his fourth win this year and he again extended his overall lead. Second belonged to Ales Loprais, who lost the special stage win by just four minutes.
De Rooy commented, “We did not find today's stage difficult, we found it terrific! Although I suffered a left-side puncture at the beginning which cost me somewhere around 10 to 12 minutes, I was later able to overtake everyone on the dunes. Not only Miki and Loprais, but also cars, it was so much fun... I saw a lot of people who had got stuck, but we were able to pass the dunes without problems. Everyone said that the front of the truck would pose a visibility problem on the dunes, but I had no issues with that, and it was obviously harder for the others... I am pleased!”
Loprais and his Tatra crew have been getting better and better day by day and could be a real threat considering the overall as the competitors take on the long stages of Chile. “We had a day of ups and downs. We overtook quite a few competitors, went down with a flat tyre, they overtook us again, and then we moved back ahead of them. Then we got to the dunes and everything went well, we produced a strong performance and I hope we will hold a good place in the general classification this evening,” said Loprais.
Loprais added, “But let us not forget that the race has just started and there is still a long week ahead of us. The Dakar is the Dakar and no-one is safe from getting into trouble. Today one pilot gets a flat tyre and tomorrow it will be another. The classification is in a state of flux, but it is always like this. Last year I was second in the general classification and then had to withdraw due to a broken turbo. Anyone can have bad luck, and we still have to wait because anything can still happen...”
Third position today and 16 minutes and 32 seconds behind the winning team went to the Kamaz-Master team driven by Russian Andrey Karginov. The past days have not been easy for the team after the exclusion of their best placed Kamaz in the overall picture.
The Truck standings now show de Rooy holding just over 17 minutes to Loprais, now in second. A further 33 minutes out of the lead is de Rooy’s team mate Hans Stacey. “I was very careful with my tyres in the first special, which did not stop us from finishing first. Then we started the second part, which was a genuine, beautiful Dakar special on the dunes,” said Stacey.
“I was not driving too fast, but we still had a rear tyre flat and lost about 15 minutes. Then we made a couple of mistakes and, although we did not have to leave the cabin, we lost some more time. But well, we are still in the running and quite confident, since the truck is going strong and our team is very good... Anything can still happen, this is the Dakar after all!” he added.
For tomorrow, the teams are having a well-deserved rest day before heading to the 477km long special stage between Copiapo and Antofagasta.