THE DAKAR AT THE HALF-WAY STAGE The rest day was marked by the penalisation of Marc Coma, second in the general standings behind Cyril Despres, due to an illegal tire change during stage 7. The situation looks good for Volkswagen at the half-way...
THE DAKAR AT THE HALF-WAY STAGE
The rest day was marked by the penalisation of Marc Coma, second in the general standings behind Cyril Despres, due to an illegal tire change during stage 7. The situation looks good for Volkswagen at the half-way stage, with three drivers from the blue team in the top three places, led by Carlos Sainz. Blue is also the colour in the truck race, which has witnessed a veritable festival from Vladimir Chagin.
Bikes: Coma penalised whilst Despres has one hand on the trophy
On the Dakar, trying to read the future is even more of a dangerous exercise than normal. It would seem however that Cyril Despres has one hand on the trophy for a third title, following his triumphs in 2005 and 2007. A perfect illustration that regularity in this event reaps benefits, the Frenchman stands atop of the general standings thanks to a mix of experience, performance and prudence. More importantly, for this type of race, he has been much more efficient than his direct rivals. The question of whether 450cc riders would be equal in battle with his KTM 690cc has been swept aside by the circumstances of the race. For example, David Casteu, the first race leader on his Sherco, only fought on a level playing field with Despres for four stages before withdrawing, after a bad fall, for the first time in seven participations. What's more, David Fretigne, another stage winner at La Rioja, lost 1 hour 35 minutes the following day on the way to Fiambala. Similarly, Francisco "Chaleco" Lopez gave up his status as pretender to the crown of outright victory after picking up a range of mechanical problems and navigational errors, but did not forget to grab a stage victory on home turf, like in 2009, on the first stop in Antofagasta.
From the start in Buenos Aires, Cyril Despres identified Marc Coma as his main threat. However, the title holder has piled up the mishaps, starting with a first penalty of 22 minutes, followed by a day marked by engine problems, before another day during which a back wheel problem caused him to grind to a halt for more than 40 minutes. Despite this avalanche of misfortunes, Coma managed to reach the rest day with two stage wins to boast, just like Despres, as well as the second place in the general standings, a long way off the lead at 1 hour 6 minutes behind, but still left with some hope.
Yet Coma's biggest mistake in fact took place on the return journey to Antofagasta. At least, this was the opinion of the race stewards, alerted by several riders due to heavy suspicion of illegal assistance. In a neutralised section of the stage, the Catalan is said to have changed a wheel before starting the second part of the stage, using a new tire that can be subjected to much more intense use. But, according to the terms of article 18-4 of the Dakar's rules, only assistance between competitors is allowed during racing time. Convinced by images taken by France Televisions, the stewards handed out a six hour penalty to Coma, who in turn denies what seems to be blatantly true to many. He is contemplating withdrawing from the race and may not be at the start tomorrow morning.
As a result, Helder Rodrigues has inherited second place, 1 hour 20 minutes behind Despres. Riding a Yamaha, he also leads the 450cc category, with a lead of 11 minutes over the Aprilia of "Chaleco" Lopez and 46 minutes over David Fretigne.
As regards the newcomers to the Dakar, the leading rookie rider is Italian Paolo Ceci, 15th in the general standings, 3 hours 17 minutes behind Despres. Concerning the women in the race, they seem to be more resistant than the men, because four of the five who started are still there. Sweden's Annie Seel, 43rd in the general standings, is the fastest of them.
The quad race 'loses its head'
The sensation of the previous Dakar with his 2nd place behind Josef Machacek, Argentina's Marcos Patronelli had the opportunity to cement his domination of the category on completion of the first half of the event, which he finished at the top of the general standings. However, a 3-hour penalty handed out by the race stewards for a breach of the rally's rules, during the seventh stage, cut short his triumphant march towards Buenos Aires. The quad race started with an ambitious title holder and a wealth of credible pretenders to the crown, as well as an exceptional headcount of 25 competitors, a record amount in which the share of Argentineans and more generally Latin Americans counted for half of the competitors. Yet, ten withdrawals before the rest day, notably including Machacek, Braga, Plechaty, Henderson and Deltrieu, soon enabled the Patronelli brothers to impose themselves on the race, winning 5 of the 7 stages contested (3 for Marcos and 2 for Alejandro). Only Spaniard Juan Manuel Gonzalez was able to sneak to the top of the general standings for one day (the 2nd stage) and contest the leadership with Marcos. He remains, before the start of the 8th stage, the last major favourite in battle with Alejandro Patronelli, who leads him in the general standings by 55'01''.
Cars: the Race Touaregs do battle
The Dakar always holds surprises and Volkswagen has often been well-placed to vouch for this. However, the situation seems very positive for Kris Nissen, with the perspective of victory for one of the five Race Touaregs. He can no longer count on title holder Giniel De Villiers, who lost almost three hours on the stage to Fiambala, nor on Mauricio Neves, who withdrew from the race after rolling his car during stage 6. On the other hand, his drivers occupy the first three places in the general standings, with a slight lead for Carlos Sainz of 11'03'' over Nasser Al Attiyah and room for manoeuvre of 22'06'' over Mark Miller. For the moment, the team has chosen to give a free reign to its three drivers battling for victory. Given the previous records of Carlos Sainz and Nasser Al Attiyah, both talented, but both likely to push themselves to their very limits, the battle could change the complexion of the race at any time during the second week. In fact, the biggest risks for Volkswagen lie most probably within their own team.
The expected confrontation with the BMW X-Raid drivers petered out during the first week, with the loss of ground suffered by Guerlain Chicherit in the very first stage, followed by the withdrawal of Nani Roma, who rolled his car after 92 km of the third stage. Stephane Peterhansel has been the most resistant of the team, even taking command of the general standings on the same day. However, he lost two hours on stage 5 after breaking his transmission system, distancing him almost irremediably from the race leaders. Nonetheless, the three times winner of the category is clawing back ground bit by bit, just like Chicherit. At the half-way stage, the former extreme skiing world champion occupies fourth place, 2 hours and 2 minutes behind Sainz, but 16 seconds ahead of "Peter". The two team-mates have been helped in their fight-back by the mishaps of Robby Gordon (stage winner at Copiapo), Krzysztof Holowczyc and Carlos Sousa.
In the race being contested by the "Production" vehicle category, title holder Nicolas Gibon is again in the lead. Twentieth in the general standings, 9 hours 30 minutes behind Sainz, he is one small place ahead of his "team leader" in Team Toyota, Jun Mitsuhashi, but with a gap of 58 minutes nonetheless. Spaniard Xavier Foj, 3rd T2 in the race, lags behind Gibon by 2 hours 46 minutes.
Trucks: a chasm between Chagin and the rest
The Kamaz team does not like to count their chickens before they have hatched, but nevertheless, they can look ahead to the second part of the race in a serene mood. Vladimir Chagin has never been closer to reaching the record still held by Karel Loprais, with six triumphs. In the meanwhile, he has already put in an almost faultless performance with six special stage victories out of seven. This harvest has also allowed him to stand out on the statistical side, because, with a total of 53 stage victories in his career, he has already beaten Ari Vatanen, and is now tied with Stephane Peterhansel (33 victories on a bike, 20 in a car).