Iquique, Chile - French rally great Stephane Peterhansel boosted his hopes of a hat-trick of Dakar Rally wins as he won Tuesday's ninth stage of the race.
Peterhansel brought his Mini home fastest on the 459km leg - 422km timed - from Calama to Iquique in Chile.
The 48-year-old - who if successful this year would make it six wins in the car category to equal the number of times he has won the motorcycle category - shaved more than 11 minutes off overall leader Nani Roma's advantage with his win.
He is now little more than 12 minutes adrift of the lead with the race due to finish on Saturday.
Peterhansel, who had a wretched start to the 2014 Dakar Rally but has surged back into contention, clocked 4hrs 17min53, with Monday’s stage winner, Qatar's Nasser Al-Attiyah, second, 2min17sec adrift.
Roma, meanwhile, was third, more than 11 minutes off the pace.
Roma, winner of the motorcycle category in 2004 and runner-up two years ago, will be keen to re-establish his authority on Wednesday.
However, Peterhansel insisted that there would be no let up from him as he chased the win.
“For sure, I am in a good position,” he said. “I have no pressure because I am not the leader.
“Now I'm trying to drive as fast as possible. I'm taking real pleasure in it now, because I have nothing to lose.
“At the end I'm second and it's not my goal to finish second. So I will push and we will see what happens.”
Stage 9 turned out to be a lot more difficult than Giniel de Villiers expected – and two punctures on the leading works Toyota Hilux V8 didn’t help. Neither did the dust and roughed up terrain from the cars ahead of them after he started seventh on the road.
At the finish of the 422km timed section, a dramatic 3000-metre drop down giant sand dunes to the overnight bivouac with the Pacific Ocean as a backdrop, he had to settle for fifth, 22min57 behind stage winner and defending champion Stéphane Peterhansel, and dropped two places to joint fourth overall.
”It was an unexpectedly tough stage,” said De Villiers. “The dune section was difficult and navigation was tricky with several waypoints that had to be found. We’ve lost a lot of time to the leaders, but there are some long stages ahead and anything can happen.”
STUCK IN THE SAND
Argentinian driver Lucio Alvarez was on course for a top 10 finish in the sole remaining South African-built and run Team Ford Ranger until the legendary dunes of the Atacama Desert left his hopes buried in the sand.
Alvarez, regarded as a master of the sand, was just outside the top 10 through all the mid-stage time checks, despite easing his pace after the midpoint when he was concerned that a front driveshaft had become noisy.
“The beginning of the stage went well,” he said. “I was happy with our pace knowing the sand was still to come. After 230km, before we reached the dunes, I heard a noise from the front of the car, which I thought might be the driveshaft.
“We eased our pace a little because if we had broken a driveshaft there would have been no chance to cross the dunes in only two-wheel drive.”
Then he got stuck in deep sand while searching for a navigation waypoint only 20km from the end of the 422km special stage from Calama to Iquique in Chile.
“We went OK through the sand until we missed a waypoint. We drove around to find it but when we tried to return to our route we got stuck and stayed there for 40 minutes. It took a lot of work, very hard work, to dig the Ranger out. We were only about 20km from the finish and it was a disappointing way to end the stage.”
Alvarez and navigator Ronnie Graue shovelled furiously to free the Ranger - so much so that Graue fainted just as it finally popped out. He quickly recovered and they completed the stage with a flat-out descent of the notorious 3000-metre final dune into the Iquique bivouac.
The unscheduled stop dropped the Ford to 22nd, 1hr 23min behind stage winner Stéphane Peterhansel. Despite the problems, however, Alvarez moved up to 33rd in the overall standings.
De Villiers’ Toyota team mate, Dakar rookie Leeroy Poulter, started 29th on the road and 28th overall after a good run on Stage 8, only to drop five places in the standings after a roll and a lengthy wait for assistance from their back-up truck saw them finish the stage 53rd, more than four hours in arrears.
“We started this morning behind five trucks,” said Poulter, “and there was a lot of fesh-fesh (a fine dust specific to the area) in the beginning. Although there was a road to follow there were frequent off-road cutaways that you had to follow.
We managed to pass a few of the trucks and were in the dust of another car when I thought there was a gap to try and make a pass. But there was a 90-degree corner and a cutaway. We went straight through the cutaway and ended up in a slow roll.
“A passing truck pulled us back on our wheels and we carried on for another 20km before we had to stop with a broken upper wishbone, which was probably as a result of the roll. We stripped the car in readiness for repairs and waited about two hours for our T4 support truck to reach us.
“After another 30 minutes we were on our way again, but we made slow progress because we had no windscreen and had to wear goggles. It’s been a long and difficult day, but the crew will fix the Hilux tonight and we’ll just have to carry on tomorrow and get some more experience.”
Spanish rider Marc Coma moved a step closer to a fourth Dakar Rally motorcycling crown with another stage victory.
The 37-year-old brought his KTM home in 4hrs 49min05, more than a minute ahead of compatriot Joan Barreda Bort (Honda) - who was second for the second consecutive day - while Monday's stage winner, France's five-time overall winner Cyril Despres, was third on a Yamahe, more than five minutes adrift.
Coma leads Barreda by 40min19 in the overall standings while another Spaniard, Jordi Viladoms, is third - but more than 90 minutes in arrears.
Coma described the stage as being a complicated one but was delighted with the outcome.
“It was very nice and very fast at the beginning, but on the last part we found some dunes,” he said.
“I tried to catch Joan, because he started two minutes in front of me. When I caught up with him I tried to follow to ride together to the end. It was a good day for me.” - AFP
RESULTS – CARS: Stage 9
1 Stephane Peterhansel (France) Mini -4hrs 17min53
2 Nasser Al-Attiyah (Qatar) Mini +2min17
3 Nani Roma (Spain) Mini +11min36
4 Orlando Terranova (Argentina) Mini +14min14
5 Giniel De Villiers (South Africa) Toyota +22min57
6 Adam Malysz (Poland) Toyota +41min33
7 Krzysztof Holowczyc (Poland) Mini +42min17
8 Federico Villagra (Argentina) Mini +43min04
9 Vladimir Vasilyev (Russia) Mini +44min59
10 Marek Dabrowski (Poland) Toyota +45min15
22 Lucio Alvarez (Argentina) Ford +1hr 23min02
48 Thomas Rundle (South Africa) Toyota +3hrs 42min52
53 Leeroy Poulter(South Africa) Toyota +4hrs 09min48
RESULTS – CARS: Overall after Stage 9
1 Nani Roma (Spain) Mini - 34hrs 15min37
2 Stephane Peterhansel (France) Mini +12min10
3 Orlando Terranova (Argentina) Mini +54min33
4 Nasser Al-Attiyah (Qatar) Mini +59min46
5 Giniel De Villiers (South Africa) Toyota +59min46
6 Krzysztof Holowczyc (Poland) Mini +3hrs 00min03
7 Marek Dabrowski (Poland) Toyota +3hrs 20min47
8 Adam Malysz (Poland) Toyota +3hrs 57min32
9 Guilherme Spinelli (Brazil) Mitsubishi +4hrs 45min04
10 Martin Kaczmarski (Poland) Mini) +4hrs 54min33
24 Thomas Rundle (South Africa) Toyota +9hrs 48min12
32 Leeroy Poulter(South Africa) Toyota +14hrs 28min40
34 Lucio Alvarez (Argentina) Ford +14hr 41min03
RESULTS – MOTORCYCLES: Stage 9
1 Marc Coma (Spain) KTM - 4hrs 49min05
2 Joan Barreda Bort (Spain) Honda +1min41
3 Cyril Despres (France) Yamaha +5min28
4 Juan Pedrero Garcia (Spain) Sherco +8min43
5 Stefan Svitko (Slovakia) KTM +9min42
6 Jordi Viladoms (Spain) KTM +11min23
7 Helder Rodrigues (Portugal) Honda +11min44
8 Ivan Jakes (Slovakia) KTM +13min40
9 Laia Sanz (Spain) Honda +14min34
10 Jeremias Israel Esquerre (Chile) Speedbrain +15min01
16 Riaan van Niekerk (South Africa) KTM +35min29
26 Brett Cummings (South Africa) Honda +52min17
RESULTS – MOTORCYCLES: Overall after Stage 9
1 Marc Coma (Spain) KTM - 36hrs 55min24
2 Joan Barreda Bort (Spain) Honda +40min19
3 Jordi Viladoms (Spain) KTM +1hr 38min45
4 Jeremias Israel Esquerre (Chile) Speedbrain +2hrs 07min06
5 Olivier Pain (France) Yamaha +2hrs 16min10
6 Helder Rodrigues (Portugal) Honda +2hrs 24min25
7 Kuba Przygonski (Poland) KTM +2hrs 25min16
8 Cyril Despres (France) Yamaha +2hrs 29min56
9 Daniel Gouet (Chile) Honda +2hrs 57min42
10 Stefan Svitko (Slovakia) KTM +3hrs 29min02
13 Riaan van Niekerk (South Africa) KTM +4hrs 17min49
30 Brett Cummings (South Africa) Honda +8hrs 35min37