San Salvador de Jujuy, Argentina – Nasser Al-Attiyah's hopes of repeating his 2011 and 2015 Dakar Rally victories disappeared on Wednesday after the Qatari ripped a wheel off his Toyota Hilux and lost two hours and 17 minutes on Stage 3, which was won by reigning champion Stephane Peterhansel.
Al-Attiyah had been set to regain the lead from nine times world rally champion Sebastien Loeb when he hit trouble between San Miguel de Tucuman and San Salvador de Jujuy in Argentina. He was leading the stage by nearly three minutes when he went off-piste and hit a hole at around the 414km mark.
"It was a fantastic stage for us," said Al-Attiyah after reaching the bivouac at San Salvador de Jujuy. "Right until we hit the other side on a big stone and broke the wheel completely.”
The winner of the first stage, and runner-up on day two, got going about an hour later at slow speed but had to stop again after another 30km.
"We decided to use some rocks and the wheel to make up the balance but we had to drive 80km like this. We stopped to repair but we could not. We don't have all the parts.
‘This is how the Dakar is’
"It was a mistake ... it's bad luck but this is the race. We were doing a really good job, we were leading but there you go..."
"Game over. A bad day," he said after ending the day 32nd overall.
While Al-Attiyah is likely to continue, the setback means he will have to focus on individual stage wins rather than the overall prize.
Gazoo Racing SA team-mate Giniel de Villiers also lost time on Wednesday's stage, although the deficit was restricted to 36 minutes, as opposed to the two hours lost by Al-Attiyah.
"We initially lost time with navigation, but once we found the correct route, we were able to hold our position," said De Villiers. "Unfortunately we then had a fuel pressure problem near the end of the stage, and lost more time working through the issue.
“We got going again, and managed to complete the stage."
Nani Roma posted the best time by a Toyota Hilux on the stage; he finished eighth, 13m16s behind the winner.
Wednesday's stage, reaching 5000 metres in altitude, ended as a one-two-three for Peugeot as defending champion Peterhansel recovered from a slow start to finish the 780km stage between San Miguel de Tucuman and San Salvador de Jujuy in Argentina in 4h18m17s.
He finished almost two minutes ahead of team-mate and former world rally champion Carlos Sainz, the father of the current Formula One driver of the same name.
Nine-times world rally champion Sebastien Loeb, also in a Peugeot, finished third, more than three minutes behind Peterhansel, but retained the overall lead, 42 seconds clear of Sainz.
Peterhansel, who is chasing his 13th Dakar win after six titles in cars and six on motorcycles, was third overall, 4m18s behind Loeb, after his first stage win on this year's 39th editon of the world’s toughest motorsport contest.
Earlier, Spain's Joan Barreda Bort moved into the overall lead in the motorcycle category by taking the third stage in 4h23m41s on his Honda. The 33-year-old finished more than 12 minutes ahead of KTM rider Sam Sunderland of Britain, with Frenchman Pierre Renet another three minutes further back on his Husqvarna.
Australia's defending champion Toby Price was ninth on his KTM, more than 21 minutes adrift of Barreda Bort, who led the overall standings after Stage 3, 10 minutes ahead of Sunderland and 13 minutes clear of Portugal's Paulo Goncalves.
Leading South African rider, Capetonian David Thomas (Husqvarna) finished 26th, by far his best stage result yet, moving up 13 places to 30th overall. He covered the 364km of the timed section in 5h16m09s, at an average speed of 69km/h – and still finished almost an hour behind Barreda Bort.
Botswana’s Vince Crosbie (KTM) came in 52nd, improving his overall standing from 65th to 52nd as well, while Walter Terblanche (KTM), 114th on the stage, dropped 11 places to 109th overall, and Joey Evans (KTM), 120th on Stage 3, dropped from 103rd to 118th.
Up next is Stage 4, which will see the Dakar leave Argentina for five days of racing in Bolivia, as well as the rest day in La Paz. The stage itself starts in Argentina, before crossing on to the high plains of Bolivia, and peaking at 4000 metres.