Nancy Knapp Schilke, Dakar correspondent
Marathon special stage ends with despair for some and sighs of relief for others
The trek across Chile started in Antofagasta with a 9 km liaison prior to taking on the main challenge covering 606 km. Originally it was to be 556 km but was altered by the organizers due to a weather related change in the route. The longest special stage for the 2012 Dakar was split into two parts. The first would be slightly easier and faster, whereas the second part would be slower at times and navigational skills by the lone riders and by the drivers and their co-pilots would be instrumental in making it to the finish and reaching the bivouac in Iquique.
After yesterday’s muddy experience – the times were adjusted after the organizers changed the route due to the muddy rio -- Cyril Despres returned today to take on his main rival, Marc Coma, for the Bike championship. While the two past champions are both on KTMs, they are with different teams, and while they battle it out, they also at times ride together and watch out for one another. The Dakar rally-raid is not just an endurance contest, it is mainly about the spirit of the challenge and respect for one another’s safety on the trek from Argentina to Chile before they arrive in Peru. The third county in South America is new to Dakar and its routes will be a first time contest for the riders and the drivers.
I had to get back to winning ways.
Since the 2005 Dakar, Despres and Coma have been the only Bike category victors. The Frenchman was the first to earn the title on the African soil; Coma did it the following year. They have traded the win each of the past years minus the canceled 2008 event. Both are aiming for their fourth Bike win in the Dakar. Today’s long special proved that while others try; the top guns are, without a doubt, the class of the field.
Despres earned the ninth stage win and his third one this year by nearly four minutes; he also stopped Coma from taking a triple stage victory. The Catalan slipped out of the overall lead and is now 2:28 behind Despres. While neither driver has been perfect, the minor errors, punctured tyres and navigational mistakes have not slowed either of them down.
“It's feeling good. After a difficult day yesterday when you start to doubt, I had to get back to winning ways. It wasn't easy to psyche myself up for it, but I'm very happy with my day's work. We came into this looking at a battle for seconds or minutes. It's very competitive. Like any top level sportsman, if you don't like confrontation or squeezing the last ounces of strength out of yourself, then you're not ready for a fight. But, as for me, I'm up for it,” said Despres.
Coma was first on the road due to his win yesterday but it was Despres who took off flying as he was first at every checkpoint. Coma ended second but he pushed just as hard and was attacking on every kilometer trying to get past Despres in the split times. Both were racing with new engines today and while there is still a long way to go and there will be more battles between the pair before the 2012 Dakar reaches its conclusion.
Coma commented, “We knew that this would be a difficult race. It was long and there was plenty of navigation to deal with. We're coming to the crunch part of the rally. Cyril is a major rival and we do battle over every single kilometer. But I think it's interesting, it's sport. Yesterday, the KTM technicians decided it was time to change our engines because we'd reached the half-way point. It's a very good idea.”
There was a third surprise today when Juan Barreda Bort proved his ability to be both accurate and fast in only his second Dakar. The Spaniard finished third today and only eight minutes and 29 seconds off the pace of Despres. Bort had his Husqvarna more than three minutes faster than third in the overall standings, Helder Rodrigues.
“It was quick and difficult, dangerous with lots of dust and rocks. At the end, there was some navigation to tackle and it was possible to lose everything we'd battled for during the day. I had a few difficulties with the way points. I was 30” behind Cyril Despres, but I lost my way little so I decided to slow down a bit to make sure I didn't make any mistakes,”Bort said. “For me, finishing here after the difficult last 50 kilometres of navigation is very positive. It's new to me and I'm happy to have managed to tackle it properly. It's been a good day.”
The Yamaha rider from Portugal maintained his podium spot in the overall and if either or both of the top two have a problem or make an error, he will be ready to pounce. Today Rodrigues lost one of his chasers when David Casteau had had an engine failure on his Yamaha. The Frenchman was at the 550 km mark and three hours later he arrived at the stage nine finish and is now 23rd in the Bike standings.
“It's a mythical stage of the rally, very long and with lots of navigation. I rode at a good pace, to try and stay in contact with Marc and Cyril. I think that if I continue like that it will be a good rally. Marc and Cyril are fighting for the general standings lead and are very quick,”said Rodrigues. “Can they still make mistakes? Anything is possible.”
Robby Gordon is no longer a bridesmaid in the Car category! The American has finished second in the last three times special stages but today, he landed the win; his first of this year’s Dakar. Gordon had his Hummer H3 one minute and 38 seconds faster than Stephane Peterhansel, which now puts him closer to his goal: Earning his first Dakar championship! Gordon is now under six minutes out of taking the overall Car lead.
“It was a very good special for us again. Now it's just a waiting game to see how soon Peterhansel comes behind me. On the transfer stage, I think we had him beat by about a minute and a half. But we need more than a minute and a half, so I pushed very hard on the last section, as hard as I could go the whole time and it will be interesting to see how much time we put on him because we pushed, like qualifying hard, not really knowing where you're going. We had a couple of big scary moments,”Gordon said.
However it was not a good day for his teammate Nasser Al-Attiyah who ended up throwing down his gloves and pulling out of the 2012 Dakar. The Qatari is the defending title holder and was unhappy due to constant failures of his alternator drive belt in his Hummer. He was at the 174 km mark when he apparently made his decision that enough was enough.
Gordon started attacking right off the line and by the end of the first part, he was in the lead but Peterhansel was not resting as he mounted his own attack and with 80 km before the finish line, the Frenchman gained time on the American. The MINI driver might have settled for second today but the battle in the final stages will be one to keep an eye on between Peterhansel and Gordon.
Peterhansel commented, “We limited the damage a bit, because it was still a special in the middle of the desert and rather tough. It depends on which special, but for a while we've been beaten fair and square. When the Hummers don't have any problems, they are a bit quicker than us. We're going to fight to hold on to the slender lead we have over him. I started to wonder if Nasser was having technical problems when I saw that he wasn't catching me up. It's true that we didn't see him all day long. It means that Gordon is on his own now and for us that makes things a little bit better. There are flaws with the Hummers. I just hope that we'll be able to take advantage of them.”
Third today was yesterday’s winner Nani Roma who was 8:37 minutes behind Gordon but faster than his X-raid teammate Krzysztof Holowczic by two minutes. However the Spaniard had no major problems while his teammate did. Holowczic rolled his MINI and he explained what happened: “95% of the stage was very good. On the last section, we missed the road, I tried to back up and rolled the car onto the roof. We asked spectators to help and a biker stopped as well. I must say a big, big thank you to him. We put the car back on its wheels and restarted, but we lost a lot of minutes. That's what happens when you push too much. But, for sure, we're still in the game, it's happened now and that's rallies, they're like that. We were pushing, pushing, pushing; nothing more, just 10 km from here. We missed the road and I tried to back up and that was it. One time we missed the road and Stephane overtook us. Afterwards we came back and on the stony area, I overtook him and we made a one minute gap again. It's not so bad, we feel confident and the road was good for me. But at the end there was just one mistake.”
If the MINIs and Gordon keep up this battle, the 14th stage before the finish in Lima, Peru, might be very close to determine the Car champion in the 2012 Dakar. Behind Peterhansel and Gordon in the Car standings is Poland’s Holowczic who is close to 17 minutes out of first and Roma is further back with a gap of 19:26 of the overall leader.
Gordon looked ahead at what can be expected and said, “For us, we've got to make time. We're in a different position to him. He has to conserve his time and I've got to make it. We've got four days left, four real days of racing left and the Hummer's strong. 19 seconds? He made a lot of time up on me, then. I can't believe he could catch us there, because we were going crazy. So he's a madman; if he beats us, he's a madman. Madder than me!”
The Truck category started with another battle between the Dutch de Rooy team and the Czech Loprais team and when the news came that Ales Loprais had crashed, everyone was surprised; especially since he did not crash on one of the timed sections, but instead in the neutralized zone between the two parts of the special stage. Loprais and his co-pilots were reported being seen by the medical staff and were not seriously injured. The Tatra truck of Loprais was second in the Truck standings and the Czech earned his first stage win of 2012 yesterday. Now they have retired from the 2012 Dakar.
Gerard de Rooy, lead driver and first in the overall, commented when he finished today’s stage: “Ales crashed and I don't know how they are, but the truck is finished I heard. I don't know about the crew inside, but I hoped they wore their safety belts. But, yes, it was not good for him. It was a nice stage, especially the last part. Normally I would have had a good fight, but then it was a bit boring, though I was thinking about Loprais. We had a very good fight from day one and he was very close. Yesterday and today we were fighting together really hard, but I'm really sad it has to end like this. But that's life, I think.”
Even when the rival teams take on the fight between one another in rally-raid events or cross country rallies, they friendly rivals and de Rooy’s comments of concern is part of racing. The good news is that the latest word on the three crew members is that they just have a few aches and some bruises.
With his main competitor out of the race, de Rooy eased up in the second section which placed him third. Instead his two other Iveco trucks took first and second. Miki Biasion now has his second stage win in his Dakar debut. The Italian was 20 seconds faster than the 2007 Truck champion, Hans Stacey. De Rooy was 54 seconds behind the Italian.
The overall leader is still de Rooy with Stacey 47+ minutes behind him. Artur Ardavichus from Kazakhstan is now in the final podium slot in only his second Dakar challenge. Team Astana is the highest placed Kamaz and their driver and crew have shown consistency throughout this year’s event and now are only 19 minutes out of second place.
De Rooy, the winner of four of the eight specials this year said, “The first part was very hard, but we had a good fight with Ales. He made a mistake on a navigation part and I passed him then was just in front of him. That was the big goal today, just to stay close to him. So the rest of the day went great for Miki.”
The Patronelli brothers continue to own the Dakar Quad category. Today Alejandro Patronelli took his second stage win and the defending champion kept the overall lead. Yesterday his brother Marcos who took the win, and between the two Argentineans they have four wins. Alejandro beat his brother by one minute today but his overall lead is one hour and 20 minutes due to Marcos’ error on the seventh stage.
Another Argentinean, Tom Maffei was second in the standings after the eighth stage but slipped to third in the standings. He also placed third in today’s stage. All three ride on the Yamaha quads. Maffei is now 30 minutes behind Marcos Patronelli. Both have to make up ground and be ready to pounce if the 2011 winner, Alejandro Patronelli shows any sign of an error or a problem.
“We rode almost all the stage together; in the end, over the last 60 kilometres, we were neck and neck. It was a superb stage, quick and a bit tricky on some parts with dunes at the end; I was a bit worried at the beginning of the stage because there were a lot of stones. There was still a long way to go and I was scared of getting a puncture. I'm happy with my machine because the Yamaha is working well. I'm more than an hour behind, so winning the category is out of my reach now, but finishing each day and getting through the stages until Lima is my goal,” said Marcos Patronelli, the 2010 Dakar Quad winner.
Stage 10 and the sand dunes! The route from Iquique to Arica tomorrow will have liaison sections of 317 kilometres with a special of 377 km that will take them across the spectacular sand dunes. Not only will it be easy to get lost but the view alone could stop one in their quest; however the more experienced Dakar contenders will know how to surf the dunes! Once they conquer the dunes, they will have a difficult final part of the special.