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American Robby Gordon's hopes of winning the 2012 Dakar Rally have suffered a major blow when stewards ruled that he should be thrown out of the event because his Hummer's engine did not conform to race regulations.
Gordon, who is pushing overall leader Stephane Peterhansel of France hard for the car title, appealed the decision and was allowed to continue competing in the 377km Stage 10 from Iquique to Arica.
However, that didn't go well for the American as he probably saw his hopes of winning dashed in any case, coming in well behind not only stage winner Nani Roma but also Roma's Mini team mate Peterhansel.
Gordon had been in tremendous form on Monday and Tuesday's stages and looked the danger man to Peterhansel, but he lost nearly 15 minutes on him on Wednesday and slipped to third overall behind Roma, who went on to take his third stage win of 2012.
However, Gordon - a veteran of NASCAR racing in the United States - made no commentary about his run-in with the stewards and instead blamed Peterhansel for not giving him enough room at one point during the stage.
He said: “I hit a rock with both right-side tyres and as you can see this wheel is way out, so we've got some broken parts.
“Do I think I can win again? Of course. I was passing Peterhansel, he didn't move over and I clobbered a rock and got two flat tyres at the same time. So, we've got our work cut out for us.”
Nevertheless Gordon insisted that Peterhansel - bidding for a 10th win in the testing race, after six on motorcycles and three in cars - would have to fight every inch of the way to emerge victorious.
“We've got a damaged race car that we're going to have to work on and there's a lot of damage from what I can see. Now we'll push, push, push even harder.”
Peterhansel, however, disputed Gordon's version of events.
“We overtook him when he made a navigation mistake,” he said, “but at the end he overtook me again.”
“He was really fast on a very short corner to the left, very tight, and he went straight on and jumped off a small cliff.
“I was sure he'd rolled, but when I saw again through the dust he was on his wheels. I think something happened with his car, I don't know exactly why or what - maybe the tyre? I don't know.”
The ultimate decision on Gordon's fate will rest with the French Automobile Sport Federation, who must deliver their verdict within two months - although, the losing party could appeal that to motorsport's global governing body, the FIA.
Gordon - whose best finish so far in seven Dakar entries has been third in 2009 - won the Stage 9 on Tuesday to cut Peterhansel's overall lead to just over five minutes.
The stewards apparently noticed the problem with his engine while checking it over after that stage - which had seen his Hummer team-mate and defending champion Nasser Al-Attiyah forced to retire after another technical problem.
The stewards believe that changes Gordon made to the ventilation system of his engine improved its performance, but he denies that his tinkering had any effect on its speed and is basing his appeal on that.
South African Dakar star Giniel de Villiers, in the first of the 'works' Toyota Hilux bakkies, finished third after what he said was arguably the toughest stage so far, coming in less than eight minutes behind Peterhansel and moving up to fourth overall.
De Villiers had some interesting things to say: “I think it was the toughest stage so far. It was really tricky at the beginning with a lot of rocks and a lot of fesh-fesh and you really had to be quite sharp.
“In the dunes it was also difficult with the visibility, it wasn't easy to see, although the crossings were not too difficult. But for sure, there was the fesh-fesh and very bumpy roads and also in some places we had quite tricky navigation as well. We just tried to follow the road-book exactly and we didn't make any mistakes.
The Toyota ran well again today; we've had no technical issues and nothing from a reliability point of view.
“We lack the power and performance to compete up front but, like I said, we've got to look to the future. We're running according to the new regulation for next year already, with a standard engine, while the front cars are running with highly modified engines.
“But if we have more stages like today anything is possible; a lot of things can happen. It's not easy, but that's what we're looking for: the more difficult it gets, the better it is for us.”
The other two South African-built Hiluxes that are still running (one has retired after its navigator withdrew) are both still in the top 10.
Argentinian privateer Lucio Alvarez has moved up a place to seventh while Duncan Vos in the second 'official' Toyota had a rough day at the office and has slipped one place to 10th - but don't read too much into that because he's only 1min 23sec behind ninth-placed Dutchman Erik van Loon's Mitsubishi.
Krzysztof Holowczyc started the day third overall but broke the power steering of his Mini only 50km into the stage, which cost him more than five hours; he finished the stage 72nd after nine hours on the road and slipped to 13th overall. - AFP
RESULTS of Stage 10 from Iquique to Arica
1 Nani Roma (Spain) Mini - 3hours 59min 37sec
2 Stephane Peterhansel (France) Mini + 21sec
3 Giniel de Villiers (South Africa) Toyota +7min 44sec
4 Robby Gordon (US) Hummer +14min14
5 Bernhard Ten Brinke (Netherlands) Mitsubishi +29min47
6 Ricardo Leal Dos Santos (Portugal) Mini +31min56
7 Leonid Novitskiy (Russia) Mini +31min56
8 Carlos Sousa (Portugal) Great Wall +43min47
9 Boris Garafulic (Chile) BMW +45min00
10 Lucio Alvarez (Argentina) Toyota +53min44
1 Stephane Peterhansel (France) Mini - 28hours 41min 12sec
2 Nani Roma (Spain) Mini +19min 05sec
3 Robby Gordon (US) Hummer) +19min51
4 Giniel de Villiers (South Africa) Toyota +1hour 01min33
5 Leonid Novitskiy (Russia) Mini +2hours 00min55
6 Carlos Sousa (Portugal) Great Wall 2hours 27min53
7 Lucio Alvarez (Argentina) Toyota +3hours 24min8
8 Bernhard Ten Brinke (Netherlands) Mitsubishi +3hours 58min22
9 Erik Van Loon (Netherlands) Mitsubishi +3hours 59min31
10 Duncan Vos (South Africa) Toyota +4hours 01min54