Juan ‘Nani’ Roma moved his Mini into the Dakar Rally lead with a win in Tuesday’s third stage as favourite Stephane Peterhansel battled through a nightmare day.
Peterhansel, also in a Mini, began the day in the overall lead following his win in Monday's second stage, but suffered six puncutures as he came home 28th, nearly half an hour behind Roma.
Another Mini driver, Krzysztof Holowczyc, came in second, 1min07 off the leader, with South African Dakar rookie Leeroy Poulter third in a works Toyota Hilux, just two minutes later.
Poulter combined a cautious approach to several rocky sections in riverbeds where many others picked up punctures and attacked the fast, rally-type sections that were similar to South African conditions.
“We had a trouble-free run and managed to keep out of trouble,” said a smiling Poulter in the bivouac at the Autodromo El Zonda. “We took it relatively easy in the rocky sections to avoid picking up punctures and were able to make up good time in faster, more open sections. The dust was a big problem again, making overtaking slower cars very difficult.
“The spectators are amazing. They line the streets of the cities and towns on the liaison sections and even on long stretches of the racing stages. They cheer you on and their support is very uplifting. This is what the Dakar is all about and I’m loving it.”
His works Toyota team mate Giniel de Villiers retained his sixth place overall despite picking up three punctures and finishing Stage 3 in 13th. He lost more than 13 minutes to the leaders on the day and now trails Roma by almost half an hour.
“The stage was a lot tougher than we expected - quite technical with lots of thorn bushes and rocks,” said De Villiers. “Our on-board jack didn’t work so we had to change the first two flat wheels manually. We battled with the first one, which took us more than six minutes, but managed to change the second one in four – and we finished the stage on a third slow puncture.”
Roma now leads a trio of Mini drivers in the overall standings with local hero Orlando Terranova second at 9min06 and Nasser Al-Attiyah of Qatar third, 10 minutes down.
Terranova was fourth on the day, losing almost five minutes to Roma, while Al-Attiyah came in seventh after suffering four punctures - which cost him a total of 10 minutes.
Peterhansel is down in fifth overall, a daunting 24min08 behind Roma.
The 11 times former winner (six times on motorcycles and five in cars) admitted he had not enjoyed the 301km timed section from San Rafael to San Juan.
“I've never known a Dakar stage like this one,” said a frustrated Peterhansel.
“It was a nightmare today. We punctured six times! Unfortunately we opened on the course and we paid for it.
“On the first section I hit a big rock, that's my fault, but then we were the first to go out and we found ourselves completely off-piste in very tall vegetation thanks to a last-gasp swerve due to bad weather and mud.
SWEEPING THE LEAVES
“And when we got out of that, we had three slow punctures out of four wheels, certainly due to the pines in the sides of the wheels.
“Unfortunately, as we were the first car, we cleared the track for the rest behind. We were thrown into the lion's den but I can't see how we could have done anything differently.
“We couldn't have imagined that in clearing a path in the vegetation we'd get three punctures out of four.”
For Roma it was a particularly satisfying day.
“You know, sometimes the Dakar is crazy and this stage was like that,” he said.
“The drivers in front of me had some problems and I tried to be really concentrated all through the stage and not make mistakes.
“Anyway, I've got here and I'm happy, but on the Dakar, Valparaiso is still far. We need to be like that and really concentrate every day.”
GOOD DAY IN THE OFFICE FOR RUNDLE
Another South African Dakar rookie, Thomas Rundle, improved his overall position by two places to 33rd after coming in 24th on Stage 3 in 3hrs 18m50.
The result, his best in the race so far, was hard earned after he experienced gearbox problems and lost the use of fifth gear for much of the stage. Rundle has now moved up from 101st at the start in Rosario on Sunday to 49th after the opening stage and 35th after Stage 2.
“We had another good day,” grinned an upbeat Rundle in the overnight bivouac at the Autodromo de San Rafael, “but we could have done even better if we hadn’t lost the gear.”
“We’re trying to keep our feet on the ground and take this amazing race one day at a time. But the excitement and energy that surrounds the Dakar, with the thousands of enthusiastic spectators we’ve seen everywhere we’ve been, gets through to you and it’s difficult not to get caught up in the moment.”
His ex-works Toyota Hilux is one of only three with independent rear suspension built by Johannesburg-based Hallspeed for Toyota Motorsport; it’s the same bakkie that took Giniel de Villiers to second in the 2013 Dakar.
BROKEN SUSPENSION ARM
Lucio Alvarez in the sole surviving SA-built Team Ford Ranger recovered well on Stage 2, making up sufficient time to claw back an impressive 92 places to 38th overall, and was hoping to continue the charge on the 301km Stage 3 through the Cordillera de Tontal mountains in the Andes on Tuesday.
Local hero Alvarez settled into a decent pace through the first two-thirds of the stage, passing several cars as the route traversed undulating terrain that varied between 1800 and more than 4000 metres in altitude - until he hit a culvert about 80km from the end of the timed section while fighting his way through the dust, damaging the front left suspension.
Alvarez and navigator Ronnie Graue were sidelined for several hours while they replaced the damaged components in 40-degree heat, with race cars screaming past at full tilt, creating clouds of dust, but they managed to get the Ranger back on the road and made it to the bivouac in San Juan just minutes before the refuelling closed for the night.
The crash dropped Alvarez down to 81st overall out of 105 remaining competitors in the car category.
The best news of the day came when Chris Visser arrived in San Juan on Tuesday night having been released from hospital after Monday’s crash, having been kept in hospital overnight for observation on a compression injury to his back.
Joan Barreda on a Honda increased his overall lead by winning the third stage, a 373km timed special.
Veteran Cyril Despres on a Yamaha came in second, 4min41behind, with Marc Coma third on a KTM at 6min56.
Those three remain in the same positions in the overall standings with Barreda holding a lead of more than 13 minutes.
It was a particularly physically demanding course for the motorcyclists despite the length of the stage being reduced due to heavy rain.
Leading South African rider Riaan van Niekerk said: “It was a dramatic first day of the marathon stage - the first riders left the bivouac at 4:30am to start the 292km liaison section that would lead them to the start of their first marathon stage, which had been cut down to 243km due to heavy rains that had damaged the route in the past few days.
”The riders were warned about hotter temperatures than on Monday - which saw the mercury hit 42 degrees – and many riders had to withdraw due to dehydration. This was also the highest special stage of the rally, with riders crossing the Andes at 4200 metres as we rode past the 6962-metre Aconcagua volcano.
”There the cars and bikes split off on separate routes as the track was too rough for the cars and trucks.”
”On Tuesday night the riders were sleeping in an isolated bivouac and had to service our bikes ourselves.”
Van Niekerk’s technical skills came into play when the stage turned extremely technical as riders fought to summit the mountain. On one particular climb, Van Niekerk really struggled and he said that he didn’t know how the rest of the field would get up.
“The bikes don’t have any power at this altitude.”
”I had to try twice on the one hill, my tyre is finished!” he said. “The tyres have worn badly and Wednesday will be tough, riders will have to concentrate on saving their equipment and making it to the finish.”
Van Niekerk said there were not many bikes at the finish – he didn’t know he’d finished 13th on the stage and moved up in the overall rankings to 12th until his crew told him.
”Ruben Faria crashed heavily and was taken to hospital in the helicopter for observation,” he said. “He’s OK, but he’s out.”
“Some of the front runners got lost; they took the wrong valley and couldn’t make the climb back up the mountain. Ben Grabham was on of them and lost about two hours on the leaders; he’s still in the race but he’ll have to fight to get back to the front."
The other South African, Honda rider Brett Cummings, battled home 68th for the day, dropping five places to 56th in the overall standings.
RESULTS – CARS: Stage 3
1 Nani Roma (Spain) Mini - 2hrs 58min52
2 Krzysztof Holowczyc (Poland) Mini +1min07
3 Leeroy Poulter (South Africa) Toyota +3min19
4 Orlando Terranova (Argentina) Mini +4min54
5 Guerlain Chicherit (France) Jefferies +6min52
6 Robby Gordon (United States) Hummer +7min02
7 Nasser Al-Attiyah (Qatar) Mini +10min09
8 Erik Wevers (Netherlands) HRX +10min39
9 Federico Villagra (Argentina) Mini +10min54
10 Erik van Loon (Netherlands) Ford +11min01
13 Giniel de Villiers (South Africa) Toyota +13min32
24 Thomas Rundle (South Africa) Toyota +19min58
105 Lucio Alvarez (Argentina) Ford +7hrs32min14
RESULTS – CARS: Overall after Stage 3
1 Nani Roma (Spain) Mini - 9hrs 20min13
2 Orlando Terranova (Argentina) Min +9min06
3 Nasser Al-Attiyah (Qatar) Mini +10min00
4 Carlos Sainz (Spain) SMG +12min02
5 Stephane Peterhansel (France) Mini +24min08
6 Giniel De Villiers (South Africa) Toyota +26min23
7 Christian Lavieille (France) Haval +31min23
8 Krzysztof Holowczyc (Poland) Mini +33min56
9 Erik Wevers (Netherlends) HRX +44min39
10 Leeroy Poulter (South Africa) Toyota) +45min10
33 Thomas Rundle (South Africa) Toyota +2hrs 24min48
81 Lucio Alvarez (Argentina) Ford +9hrs 54min42
RESULTS – MOTORCYCLES: Stage 3
1 Joan Barreda Bort (Spain) Honda - 3hrs 47min03
2 Cyril Despres (France) Yamaha +4min41
3 Marc Coma (Spain) KTM +6min56
4 Alain Duclos (France) Sherco +10min51
5 David Casteu (France) KTM +11min17
6 Francisco Lopez Contardo (Chile) KTM +16min36
7 Gerard Farres Guell (Spain) Gas Gas +16min50
8 Stefan Svitko (Slovakia) KTM +19min06
9 Kuba Przygonski (Poland) KTM +20min12
10 Olivier Pain (France) Yamaha +20min34
13 Riaan van Niekerk (South Africa) KTM +28min15
68 Brett Cummings (South Africa) Honda +2hrs 19min42
RESULTS – MOTORCYCLES: Overall after Stage 3
1 Joan Barreda Bort (Spain) Honda - 9hrs 56min44
2 Cyril Despres (France) Yamaha +13min04
3 Marc Coma (Spain) KTM +13min56
4 Alain Duclos (France) Sherco +16min38
5 Francisco Lopez Contardo (Chile) KTM +18min39
6 David Casteu (France) KTM +22min16
7 Jordi Viladoms (Spain) KTM +34min33
8 Olivier Pain (France) Yamaha +36min33
9 Kuba Przygonski (Poland) KTM) +37min54
10 Stefan Svitko (Slovakia) KTM +40min09
12 Riaan van Niekerk (South Africa) KTM +54min19
56 Brett Cummings (South Africa) Honda +3hrs 49min22