Salta, Argentina – Sebastien Loeb won the eighth stage of the Dakar Rally and recaptured the lead from Peugeot team-mate Stephane Peterhansel as they led the field back into Argentina from Bolivia.
Cyril Despres was next in the third Peugeot, with Mikko Hirvonen fourth for Mini, ahead of Giniel de Villiers in the surviving Toyota Gazoo Racing SA Hilux. The South African star put in a heroic drive to finish 12 minutes down on the leaders as the Peugeots made the most of their altitude advantage while it lasted.
Nevertheless, De Villiers was able to retain sixth position in the overall standings, 1h21m44s behind the leader and 29m03 adrift of Hirvonen.
Nani Roma in the Overdrive Toyota Hilux was seventh for the day behind Orlando Terranova in the second Mini, dropping down from third in the overall standings to fourth behind Despres. Zimbabwe’s Conrad Rautenbach enjoyed another positive run to ninth for the day, to move up one place to 13th in the overall standings, albeit almost four hours down on the leaders.
However, the South African-built Toyotas were hoping to take the fight to the Peugeots on the remaining stages of the Dakar as the route returned to more sensible altitudes, with Roma expected to make an all-out bid to close the gap on the French machines.
"The turbo-charged cars definitely had a big advantage on the stage," said De Villiers from the makeshift service point at Abra Pampa. "But we managed to restrict our time loss, and from tomorrow we're down at lower altitudes, so we'll be looking to get into the thick of the fight."
More bad weather
The timed section of the stage from the high plains of Uyuni down to Salta was again shortened by 73km due to the bad weather that has made life difficult since the weekend, and rally organisers were forced to cancel cancel Wednesday's ninth stage altogether as heavy rain continued to wreak havoc with the 12-stage race.
What was described as “a massive landslide caused by thunderstorms" near the village of Volcan in Argentina prevented many competitors and service crews from reaching their overnight bivouac at Salta. The small Argentine town of Abra Pampa became a makeshift bivouac for Toyota Gazoo Racing SA as the team was forced to complete an entire service on the side of the road near the town.
Tuesday turned out to be one of the longest days on this year's race, and even Roma, competing in his 22nd Dakar, said this year's race was "the toughest I've ever seen".
Stages 7 and 8 were run as a marathon section, with no assistance allowed at the overnight bivouac in Uyuni, but neither of the two Hiluxes needed serious repairs after Stage 8 - which was a relief for the technical crews, who found themselves facing not only a roadside service, but also a long drive over treacherous terrain to reach the bivouac in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
Wednesday's stage would have taken competitors nearly 1000km from Salta to Chilecito but, with the road to Salta cut off, competitors and logistical teams were diverted by some 200 kilometres, while a number of larger vehicles were unable to use either route.
Competitors will now regroup in Chilecito for Thursday's 10th stage to San Juan.
Peterhansel, who led by 1m57s overnight, ended the day 1m38s behind the nine times world rally champion, who won his third stage of this year's Dakar – and it might have been more if Loeb, who started after his team-mate, had not suffered a puncture on the Argentine side of the border."I tried really hard,” said Loeb, “because today was a stage like the ones I like, with some fast roads, whereas tomorrow is more desert-like with dunes.
"I wanted to try to make a gap today but finally I had a puncture on the last part of the stage so I lost a few minutes to change the wheel," he added.
"At the moment the fight seems to be between me and Stephane, but I think the two next days will be very, very tough and anything can happen there."
British rider Sam Sunderland increased his overall lead after finishing third in the stage, which was won by Spain's Joan Barreda Bort on the leading Honda.
Barrera Bort took more than three minutes out of KTM riders Matthias Walkner - second for the day - and Sunderland, with the Hondas of Michael Metge and Paulo Goncalves sandwiching Sherco rider Juan Pedrero Garcia in fourth and sixth, ahead of Chilean Pablo Quintanila’s Husqvarna.
Botswana's Vince Crosbie finished the stage 55th, but moved up one position to 41st in the overall standings, while South African hero Joey Evans put one of his best rides of the Dakar so far, finishing 96th for the day and moving up from 102nd to 98th overall.
With effectively only three stages to go Sunderland was now leading Quintanilla in the overall standings by nearly 21 minutes, and within sight of a historic 20th consecutive Dakar Rally win for Austrian bikemaker KTM
But Tuesday was a rough day in the office for the race leader.
"It was really, really wet and difficult to pass in some places,” he said. “I stopped a few times to change my goggles and change my gloves and silly things, just because it was too much.
"I couldn't see the road book, I couldn't see where I was going," added Sunderland, who also rode the last 100km of the timed section with no rear brake.
Reuters, DPA and IOL Motoring