Uyuni, Bolivia – French driver Stephane Peterhansel won the seventh stage of the Dakar Rally in Bolivia on Monday to pull further ahead of Peugeot team-mate Sebastien Loeb.
The 51-year-old finished the La Paz-Uyuni leg in 1h54m08s, just 48 seconds ahead of nine-times world rally champion Loeb, increasing his lead in the overall standings to 1m57s.
But the star of the day was South Africa's Giniel de Villiers, who charged through to take third place in the stage in the surviving Toyota Gazoo Racing SA Hilux, 3m33 behind behind Peterhansel - not bad at all for a high altitude stage in a normally aspirated car, as the Hilux beat Mikko Hirvonen in the best of the Minis by a minute and a half.
De Villiers also moved up from eighth to sixth overall - close enough to worry Hirvonen ahead of him in fifth.
It was also a good day for Toyota's best placed driver, Spaniard Nani Roma, who followed Hirvonen home in fifth to move up to third overall ahead of Peugeot’s Cyril Despres' Peugeot, as the French Dakar veteran trailed home eighth on the stage after apparently getting lost.
Saturday's Oruro-La Paz stage was cancelled and Friday's Tupiza-Oruro route was shortened due to bad weather. Peterhansel leads the overall standings, one minute and 57 seconds ahead of nine-time world rally champion Loeb. Spain's Roma Nani is third in a Toyota, 11 minutes and seven seconds off the pace.
After a rest day in La Paz on Sunday, and bad weather cutting short Saturday's sixth stage, the rally again made adjustments for the challenging conditions with a revamped route to the Uyuni salt flats.
The day's action comprised a reduced timed section - halved to 161km after heavy rain made sections of the route impassable - and liaison sections of 400km and 240km respectively either side of it.
Peterhansel's second stage win on the 2017 Dakar gained him 48 seconds and put him 1m57s ahead of second-placed Loeb in the overall standings, with Toyota's Spanish driver Nani Roma third, 11 minutes off the pace.
"The lead is better than nothing," said Peterhansel of the slim margin. "The overall classification is still very close, but it's a really interesting race for everybody. We're still in the fight and that's the most important thing."
American star Ricky Brabec, running way down the start order after all four works Hondas were slapped with a one-hour penalty for illegal refuelling on Wednesday, pulled a late surprise when he arrived an hour after the first starter, Pablo Quintanilla (Husqvarna), to post the fastest time by a motorcycle on Stage 7 and push the Chilean rider down to second for the day.
Quintanilla meanwhile narrowed the gap to overall leader Sam Sunderland (KTM), by almost three minutes; the British rider was third on the day from Joan Barreda Bort on another Honda, with Viscount Xavier de Soultrait (Yamaha) and Michel Metge (Honda) fifth and sixth respectively.
After seven stages Sunderland was leading Quintanilla in the overall standings by 15 minutes with Adrien van Beveren's Yamaha third ahead of the KTMs of Gerard Farres Guell and Matthias Walkner, with Soultrait sixth, and the Honda riders further adrift after their refuelling penalty.
Botswana's Vince Crosbie enjoyed a brilliant stage, coming in 27th for the day to move up to 42nd overall, while South African hero Joey Evans came in 105th, two and a half hours behind the leader, but managed to hold on to 102nd overall.
The 2017 Dakar Rally features 12 stages, covering more than 9000km in Paraguay, Bolivia and Argentina; the competitors will re-enter Argentina on Tuesday before finishing in Buenos Aires on Saturday 14 January.
Reuters, Xinhua, IOL Motoring