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KTM rider Francisco Lopez celebrated the arrival of the 2012 Dakar Rally in his native Chile by clinching his third stage win this year, on the 438km sixth stage from Arica in Peru to Calama in Chile.
It was the longest stage of the rally so far and the first to take riders out into the notorious fesh-fesh, the treacherous powdery sand of the Atacama desert, the driest place on earth.
Lopez finished the punishing stage in 3 hours 36 minutes 21 seconds, 2min34 ahead of fellow KTM rider Ruben Faria, with defending champion Cyril Despres, also on a KTM, just over a minute further back.
But he didn't have a clear run; Lopez said afterward: "The first part of the special went very well, but on the second section, the engine lost a fair bit of power and I started wondering whether it was a fuel problem or due to the altitude."
Olivier Pain still leads the overall standings with a 2min 22sec lead over four-time winner and defending champion Cyril Despres. Pain's Yamaha team mate, Stage 5 winner David Casteu, had a dreadful ride, finishing 14th, 11min06 behind Lopez, and dropping to third overall behind Depres, 4min 48sec off the lead.
SOUTH AFRICAN CONTINGENT
Most of the South African riders had a successful day in the dunes of the Atacama, with Dakar rookie Riaan van Niekerk (KTM) finishing 15th in 3hr47min55, just a few seconds behind Casteu, and moving up another position in the overall standings to 16th, 36 minutes and 22 seconds behind the leader.
Van Niekerk's more experienced team mate, however, struggled home 12 minutes later, finishing the stage 24th and dropping from 15th to 19th overall, 45min30 off the pace.
Honda rider Brett Cummings became one of the heroes of the 2012 Dakar when he towed a fellow competitor almost 160km to the end of Stage 4. They finally arrived in the middle of the night and Cummins started Thursday's Stage 5 in 123rd position after just a few hours' sleep.
Nevertheless, he managed to finish 103rd and tackled Thursday's long run with renewed spirit, finishing a superb 44th, 49min20 behind the leader, and leapfrogging 12 places in the overall standings to 78th.
Quad rider Sarel van Biljon (A-ETV) also had a good day in the office, completing Stage 6 in third, 10min30 behind the leader and moving up one position in the standings to fourth, 2hours and two minutes behind overall leader Marcos Patronelli, who has dominated the quad category from the start on his Yamaha.
RESULTS - STAGE 6
1 Francisco Lopez (Chile) KTM 3hr 36min 21sec
2 Ruben Faria (Portugal) KTM +2min34
3 Cyril Despres (France) KTM +3min48
4 Kurt Caselli (United States) KTM +4min48
5 Jeremias Israel Esquerre (Chile) Honda +6min13
6 Frans Verhoeven (Netherlands) Yamaha +6min41
7 Helder Rodrigues (Portugal) Honda +6min58
8 Juan Pedrero Garcia (Spain) KTM +7min22
9 Olivier Pain (France) Yamaha +7min33
10 Jakub Przygonski (Poland) KTM +7min48
1 Olivier Pain (France) Yamaha 15hr 35min 23sec
2 Cyril Despres (France) KTM +2min22
3 David Casteu (France) Yamaha +4min48
4 Francisco Lopez (Chile) KTM +6min06
5 Ruben Faria (Portugal) KTM +8min35
6 Jakub Przygonski (Poland) KTM +19min15
7 Stefan Svitko (Slovakia) KTM +22min08
8 Jeremias Israel Esquerre (Chile) Honda +24min38
9 Helder Rodrigues (Portugal) Honda +25min23
10 Alessandro Botturi (Italy) Husqvarna +27min02