Buenos Aires - Stephane Peterhansel held off a challenge from Peugeot team-mate Sebastien Loeb to claim his 13th Dakar Rally title in Argentina on Saturday.
The 51-year-old's second place in the final 786km stage from Rio Cuarto to Buenos Aires was enough to ensure he finished on top of the overall standings with an elapsed time of 28h49m30s.
Loeb clocked the fastest time on Saturday to finish second overall, 5m13s behind Peterhansel, while Cyril Despres completed a clean sweep of the podium places for Peugeot (and French drivers) by taking third, 33m28s.
"This victory is particularly sweet because the competition was so high," Peterhansel said. "Battling Sebastien and finishing just a few minutes ahead is no mean feat.
"I want to thank Peugeot for not imposing any orders on the team, which I think exemplifies fair play and sportsmanship because the conditions were the same for everybody."
"There were, in all, seven or eight drivers with a shot at victory. Halfway through the race there were only four left, and by the final week it was just Sebastien and me," he added.
"Yesterday, it was decided by a flat tyre, and that was probably the turning point in this Dakar,"
It was Peterhansel's seventh Dakar Rally triumph in the car category to go with his six titles on a motorcycle. Nine-times world rally champion Loeb posted his best finish yet in the world’s toughest motorsport contest, having competed for the first time in 2016.
"We gave it everything, held nothing back," Loeb said. "We had a beautiful race. Second this year, we'll have to do better next year."
"I don't think I'm going to race in as many editions of the Dakar as Stephane, but my aim is to win it someday: we'll have to keep on trying."
Proudly South AfricanHis home is in the university town of Stellenbosch, but every South African petrolhead claims #TheRealGiniel de Villiers as his own. The former Dakar winner (with Volkswagen in 2009) charged past Depres on the short (64km) final timed section to take third for the day on the last day of the 2017 Dakar rally and nail down fifth overall after an extraordinarily difficult race even by Dakar standards.
The big V8 Toyota Gazoo Racing SA Hilux bakkies were simply not competitive at altitude against the lighter, turbocharged Peugeots, navigation was at best a lottery and several stages at lower altitude where De Villiers hoped to claw back time from the dominant 3008 DKR buggies were either shortened or cancelled due to seriously bad weather.
Nani Roma in the Overdrive Racing Hilux finished Stage 12 in a somewhat conservative eighth place, 81 seconds behind Loeb, but he knew that, barring disaster, his fourth position overall was secure, so he concentrated on avoiding disaster.‘Made in Midrand’
Zimbabwean rally ace Conrad Rautenbach, by contrast, had nothing to lose and let rip on the final stretch of dirt to finish just seven seconds behind Depres and consolidate his overall position of ninth in the car category and top rookie.
Rautenbach’s performance in the second week of his first Dakar Rally was notably more consistent that in the first few stages, as he got to grips with rally-raid racing at its toughest.
That put three Hiluxes in the top 10, with Roma the winner of the T1 4x4 category; incidentally, there were no fewer than 24 ‘Made in Midrand’ V8 Hilux bakkies entered for the 2017 Dakar Rally, more than any other model other than in the motorcycle category.
Homework, attention required
At the end of the day, Dakar 2017 will be remembered for being the race where Stephane Peterhansel overcame Sebastien Loeb to score an epic win in a Peugeot 1-2-3, Mr Dakar's second in a Peugeot, his seventh in a car and quite incredibly his 13th overall.
Toyota has some homework to do to beat the mighty French team - it is well underway to doing so with its radical new Hilux 'buggy', but there may be more to it than that, since Japanese giant does not have a suitable turbodiesel in its present engine range, which is crucial in order for it to take the fight to the Peugeots on the altiplano - the high plains of the Andes mountains.
But the 2017 race will also be remembered as the Dakar of the navigation nightmare, rain, mudslides and the cancellation and shortening of an unprecedented number of stages. These are issues that Dakar organisers - and in particular new route director Marc Coma, need to pay attention to if this iconic event is to retain its status into its fourth decade.
Earlier, Sam Sunderland became the first British Dakar Rally champion when he won the two-wheeled category. Dubai-based Sunderland beat Austrian KTM team-mate Matthias Walkner by 32 minutes overall after cruising home to sixth on the final timed section at Rio Cuarto.
After that, he said, the final 700km liaison to the official finish in Buenos Aires was a bit unreal.
"Unbelievable,” he said afterwards. “When I crossed the line I felt all the emotion hit me. The weight on my shoulders of the race over the past week, leading the rally has been really heavy," said Sunderland.
"It's the first Dakar I've ever finished and to finish first is an incredible feeling. I'm really lost for words.
Sunderland was forced to retire with mechanical problems in two previous attempts in 2012 and 2014.
"It's incredible to be the first Englishman,” he added. “Hopefully we can create some English interest now, because so far they've not been reporting much, but I hope we can change that," he added.
Australian Toby Price, the surprise Dakar Rally motorcycle champion of 2016, was airlifted out of Stage 4 with a broken leg after crashing his KTM.
Adrien van Beveren (Yamaha), Gerard Farres Guell (KTM) and works Honda team leader Joan Barreda Bort took the top three places in the final stage, but finished fourth, third and fifth respectively in the overall standings behind Sunderland and Walkner.
It should be noted, however, that Barreda Bort won four of the 10 stages that were actually run, and both he and team-mate Paulo Goncalves would have beaten Sunderland overall had not been for a one-hour penalty imposed on the Honda squad for refuelling outside the designated area on Stage 3.
Of the four Southern African riders who started in Asuncion, Capetonian David Thomas crashed out with a broken leg and Walter Terblanche was forced to withdraw by ongoing fuelling issues.
Botswana’s Vince Crosbie completed his maiden Dakar Rally in a creditable 36th place overall, but it was former paraplegic Joey Evan who had South African enduro enthusiasts cheering him on.
The severely disabled Evans battled through Stage 11 on Friday, spending a marathon 15 hours on the bike and finishing after the results were compiled, and took twice as long to complete the 64km of the final stage on Saturday - but when the finishers were counted at Buenos Aires, 700km later, Evans was there to flash his trademark grin for the official photos.
For the record, he was classified 95th - but, given that only 97 out of 167 motorcycle competitors made it to Buenos Aires, that made him a winner in anybody’s book.
Joey Evans - a winner in anybody's book. Pictures: Motorsport Media
Xinhua, Reuters, IOL Motoring