Antofagasta, Chile - Dakar Rally legend Stephane Peterhansel took a huge step towards winning the world’s toughest motorsport challenge race for a 12th time after finishing second in Wednesday's 10th stage from Iquique to Antofagasta in Chile.
Peterhansel, six times a winner in the motorcycle section and five times in cars, finished second in his Mini behind former winner Nasser Al-Attiyah, closing up to little more than two minutes adrift of overall leader Nani Roma.
For Al-Attiyah it was a second stage win in three days but the 46-year-old Peterhansel celebrated eating further into Roma's lead.
He trailed the Spaniard by 40 minutes after the fifth stage but made significant moves on Tuesday and then Wednesday and, with three stages remaining, appears to have the momentum.
Top South African contender Giniel de Villiers, in the works Toyota Hilux V8, but in a storming run to finish fourth, 28min15 behind Peterhansel’s flying Mini, and hoist himself back up to fourth overall after slipping to fifth on Tuesday’s difficult ninth stage.
Going into Stage 11 on Thursday morning, De Villiers was only 15min15 adrift of Nasser Al-Attiyah in third, but a daunting 1 hour 13 minutes behind Peterhansel with just three stages remaining.
Lucio Alvarez took the sole remaining Team Ford Ranger to ninth as the route twisted and turned through his favourite sand dunes near the Pacific coast – a perfect antidote to Tuesday’s frustrations when he got bogged down in thick sand for 40 minutes, just 20km from the finish.
That meant Alvarez started well down the running order from Iquique on Wednesday morning, but he quickly passed a string of stranded cars and trucks during the first 75km of sand, from which he emerged fifth fastest.
He finished the first 231km section of the two-part stage eighth and lost only one position in the following 215km section, which ended with a dramatic downhill sweep from more dunes into the finish at Antofagasta.
The Ranger suffered an intermittent electrical issue related to the throttle that forced Alvarez to switch the engine off briefly and restart it several times during the stage – but that didn’t stop him from climbing from 35th to 28th in the overall standings.
He said afterwards: “It was a difficult beginning to the stage through the sand dunes but we handled it well and did a good job. We made good driving lines through the sand and found all the navigation points without any problems.
“We passed a lot of cars who started ahead of us but it wasn’t hard getting by because they were all stuck. I don’t think I passed a moving car all day, but I went by many drivers who were trying to dig their cars out of the sand. I only had to pass motorcycles and quads and that’s easier than trying to overtake cars.”
South African privateer Thomas Rundle, driving the ex-Giniel de Villiers Toyota Hilux, delivered another steady performance to finish 21st and improve his overall position three places to 22nd.
“Our hardworking crew had another late night last night fixing the power-steering problem that dropped us to 25th overnight,” said Rundle.
“Stage 10 was tough with fast tracks, some fesh-fesh – the very fine dust that gets into everything and makes visibility difficult when following another car – and more dunes. The dunes are difficult, with navigation a big challenge and the danger of bogging down in the sand always there.”
Earlier, Spanish rally great Carlos Sainz abandoned the race after crashing and injuring himself.
The 51-year-old former double World Rally Champion and winner of the Dakar in 2010 was taken to the rally medical centre, according to event organisers.
His vehicle, an SMG buggy, was badly damaged.
Organiser Etienne Lavigne said: “He was slightly injured and evacuated to the medical centre at the Antofagasta bivouac.”
Sainz, nicknamed the 'Matador' for his aggressive style of driving, was way off the pace even before the stage, trailing compatriot Roma by 3hrs 28mins.
Spanish rider Joan Barreda won his third stage of this year's Dakar but remained a long shot for the overall win.
The 30-year-old Honda rider, who finished second in the two previous stages, was still second in the overall standings, almost 45 minutes behind his compatriot Marc Coma, who was fifth on the day.
Barreda, winner of four stages in 2013, finished in front of Portuguese veteran Helder Rodrigues, also on a Honda, while five-times Dakar winner Cyril Despres was third.
Despres' chances of a sixth win evaporated when his Yamaha had engine trouble in the Stage 4 and he was sixth overall, almost two and a half hours in arrears, after Stage 10.
The riders got a true taste of the Atacama desert, with wide open sections and lots of sand, as top South African rider Riaan van Niekerk (KTM) got lost twice and finished 17th, losing 35 minutes to the stage winner, but holding on to third overall.
Dakar rookie Brett Cummings (Honda ) had a smooth day, finishing 26th on the stage,to retain 30th overall.
RESULTS – CARS: Stage 10
1 Nasser Al-Attiyah (Qatar) Mini - 4hrs 23min35
2 Stephane Peterhansel (France) Mini +3min50
3 Nani Roma (Spain) Mini +13min45
4 Giniel de Villiers (South Africa) +28min15
5 Krzysztof Holowczyc (Poland) Mini +31min13
6 Vladimir Vasilyev (Russia) Mini +33min22
7 Orlando Terranova (Argentina) Mini +33min48
8 Lucio Alvarez (Argentina) Ford +43min01
9 Federico Villagra (Argentina) Mini +45min06
10 Christian Lavieille (France) Haval +49min34
21 Thomas Rundle (South Africa) Toyota +1hr 53min04
RESULTS – CARS: Overall after Stage 10
1 Nani Roma (Spain) Mini -38hrs 52min 57
2 Stephane Peterhansel (France) Mini +2min15
3 Nasser Al-Attiyah (Qatar) Mini +46min01
4 Giniel de Villiers (South Africa) Toyota +1hr 14min16
5 Orlando Terranova (Argentina) Mini +1hr 14min36
6 Krzysztof Holowczyc (Poland) Mini +3hrs 17min31
7 Marek Dabrowski (Poland) Toyota +4hrs 03min57
8 Christian Lavieille (France) Haval +4hrs 32min45
9 Adam Malysz (Poland) Toyota +4hrs 51min03
10 Martin Kaczmarski (Poland) Mini +5hrs 33min54
22 Thomas Rundle (South Africa) Toyota +11hrs 27min31
34 Lucio Alvarez (Argentina) Ford +14hr 41min03
RESULTS – MOTORYCLES: Stage 10
1 Joan Barreda Bort (Spain) Honda - 4hrs 42min00
2 Helder Rodrigues (Portugal) Honda +8min00
3 Cyril Despres (France) Yamaha +9min40
4 Olivier Pain (France) Yamaha +11min11
5 Marc Coma (Spain) KTM +11min26
6 Kuba Przygonski (Poland) KTM +15min08
7 Stefan Svitko (Slovakia) KTM +15min14
8 Javier Pizzolito (Argentina) Honda +16min58
9 Ivan Jakes (Slovakia) KTH +18min17
10 Daniel Gouet (Chile) Honda +19min21
16 Riaan van Niekerk (South Africa) KTM +35min29
26 Brett Cummings (South Africa) Honda +52min17
RESULTS – MOTORYCLES: Overall after Stage 10
1 Marc Coma (Spain) KTM - 41hrs 48min33
2 Joan Barreda Bort (Spain) Honda +44min10
3 Jordi Viladoms (Spain) KTM +2hrs 02min03
4 Olivier Pain (France) Yamaha +2hrs 16min12
5 Helder Rodrigues (Portugal) Honda +2hrs 21min16
6 Cyril Despres (France) Yamaha +2hrs 28min27
7 Kuba Przygonski (Poland) KTM +2hrs 29min15
8 Daniel Gouet (Chile) Honda +3hrs 05min54
9 Stefan Svitko (Slovakia) KTM +3hrs 33min07
10 David Casteu (France) KTM +3hrs 41min54
13 Riaan van Niekerk (South Africa) KTM +4hrs 17min49
30 Brett Cummings (South Africa) Honda +8hrs 35min37