Former winner Carlos Sainz claimed the fourth stage of the Dakar Rally and the overall lead on Wednesday with defending champion Stephane Peterhansel in second despite enduring a second successive day of punctures.
SMG Buggy driver Sainz, the 2010 Dakar champion, finished more than six minutes ahead of Peterhansel, an 11-time winner on four wheels and two, with Qatar's Nasser Al-Attiyah, the 2011 winner, coming home third on the 657km timed run from San Juan to Chilecito.
It was Sainz's 26th career stage win on the gruelling event and gave him an overall advantage of 2min06 on overnight leader, Mini Driver Nani Roma with Al-Attiyah, also in a Mini, 6min56 behind Sainz in the overall standings.
Peterhansel clawed back a few minutes after a disastrous third stage on Tuesday saw him suffer six punctures in his Mini, but he remained 18min10 behind Sainz.
“At the beginning we had to drive in the dust.”
“But little by little we managed to overtake several cars,” said Sainz. “We also got a bit lucky when, about 10km before the finish, our power steering broke down in a narrow spot amid all the vegetation, but we easily made it to the finish all the same.
“In the second part there was a waypoint where we went right, but after a while we realised it had to be on the other side, so we headed left and we found it. No big deal, I think everybody made the same mistake.”
Peterhansel said his hopes had been dashed by yet another puncture.
“Not the best way to start the day.”
“Things didn't start very well this morning,” he said. “We had a flat tyre after 30km.
“So we decided to set a consistent pace and try to avoid mistakes. Towards the end, there was a waypoint that was quite hard to find, but we went the right way from the beginning by U-turning to look in the right direction, which helped us not to lose too much time. And, in the end, we did quite well.”
“We can’t afford to keep losing time like this.”
Seventh on Wednesday’s fourth special stage between San Juan and Chilecito in Argentina saw Toyota works driver Giniel de Villiers hold on to sixth overall – but it might have been a very different story had they not again experienced difficulty with their power steering, which denied them a possible stage win.
It was the longest stage of the race so far – 868km in all with a 657km racing section – and De Villiers was running second at the 470km mark when he had to stop to check the power steering. That was when he realised the V8 Hilux also had a slow puncture, which cost him about 14 minutes.
“It’s very disappointing,” admitted De Villiers. “Apart from the steering issue the performance of the car is perfect - we had a real chance of winning today’s special stage.
“Now we’ll have to put in a big effort tomorrow and over the next few days to close the gap to the leaders.”
Local hero Lucio Alvarez in the South African-built Ford Racing Ranger enjoyed an encouraging run in Stage 4 to finish 16th, 44min37 behind Sainz.
Crew chief Neil Woolridge and his team worked through the night to repair the suspension damage from Stage 3, only for a minor electronic glitch to prevent the Ranger from starting in the morning.
The problem was traced to a faulty water-temperature sensor that also cut out the accelerator, but by then Alvarez was 32 minutes late for his start slot, which cost him a one-hour penalty, added to the overall times.
The thick dust of the first timed section was exacerbated when the Argentinian got stuck behind a couple of the race trucks on the road, severely curtailing visibility and overtaking opportunities.
"We hit some big jumps quite hard."
He set a blistering pace in the second part of the special, however, after the intermediate 157km neutralisation, matching the pace of the front-runners, which was very encouraging for the team as a whole.
“We simply couldn’t pass the trucks,” Alvarez said. “That must have cost us at least 20 minutes.
“The second section was a lot better and we were able to go much faster, pushing hard and passing several cars along the way.
“Considering we lost 32 minutes at the start I think we posted a really good time; that means we can start closer to the front tomorrow with the faster cars, so we should be able to go quicker.”
THE DAKAR BITES BACK
The Dakar Rally is not regarded as the world’s toughest motorsport challenge for nothing. Just when you think you’ve got things under control, the Dakar bites back! The first four days of the 2014 edition have seen even the most experienced competitors rise and fall on the leader board.
For Dakar rookie Leeroy Poulter in the second Toyota Motorsport Hilux it was a bad day after three good days that saw them in 10th overall after finishing an excellent third on Tuesday’s special stage.
Damaged dampers left them stranded just 50 kilometres into Stage 4 and they had to wait about three hours for their back-up truck before they could get going again.
“We were second and chasing Nani Roma’s Mini when we hit a step-up at speed on a long straight section,” explained Poulter. “The impact broke the right rear dampers and we were forced to stop. After the T4 truck arrived and we replaced the dampers we had no further problems; the car ran perfectly otherwise.”
Nevertheless, the crash dropped him from 10th to 29th overall after being classified as 59th on the stage, 3hrs 38min35 behind Sainz.
Sherco rider Juan Pedrero took the stage honours while veteran Cyril Despres, the defending champion and seeking a sixth career title, was the victim of an engine breakdown on his Yamaha that dropped him 41min17 behind overall leader Joan Barreda’s Honda.
Despres had been second in the standings overnight, but had to stop for more than half an hour to fix the engine problem, which was believed to have been caused by an electrical fault.
“My positioning system broke. I had to do a little handiwork to repair it,” said Despres.
“But I am not discouraged. The day that I give up is the day I go home. I love this race and there are plenty of stages left before the finish at Valparaiso on January 18.”
KTM rider Francisco Lopez Contardo came in second but, more importantly, team leader Marc Coma finished third, moving up to second overall, just 3min10 behind overall leader Juan Barreda’s Honda.
”I’ve never been so lost in my life!”
The day started well for leading South African motorcycle competitor Riaan van Niekerk who slotted in amongst the worlds best rally riders, moving up to seventh by the second checkpoint. He lost some ground by the halfway refuel at the 190km mark but was still only six minutes behind KTM team mate Francisco Lopez, who was leading at the time.
Then disaster struck as Van Niekerk and works Yamaha rider Michael Metge lost their bearings and went completely off course, losing more than 90 minutes and clocking up an extra 65km in the process. Van Niekerk finished the day 69th, two hours down on the leaders, dropping from 12th to 22nd overall.
The other South African two-wheeler, Honda rider Brett Cummings, had a great day finishing the stage 29th and moving up eight places to 48th overall.
Nevetheless, say the more experienced riders, the start of the 2014 Dakar has been way tougher than in 2012; the past two days have eliminated about 80 motorcycles.
RESULTS – CARS: Stage 4
1 Carlos Sainz (Spain) SMG – 5hrs 20min32
2 Stéphane Peterhansel (France) Mini +6min04
3 Nasser Al-Attiyah (Qatar) Mini +8min58
4 Federico Villagra (Argentina) Mini +13min19
5 Nani Roma (Spain) Mini +14min08
6 Orlando Terranova (Argentina) Mini +16min04
7 Giniel De Villiers (South Africa) Toyota +24min49
8 Christian Lavieille (France) Hava +26min59
9 Pascal Thomasse (France) Buggy Md Rallye +33min37
10 Aidyn Rakhimbayev (Kazakhstan) Toyota +34min08
RESULTS – CARS: Overall after Stage 4
1 Carlos Sainz (Spain) SMG – 14hrs 52min47
2 Nani Roma (Spain) Mini +2min06
3 Nasser Al-Attiyah (Qatar) Mini +6min56
4 Orlando Terranova (Argentina) Mini +13min08
5 Stéphane Peterhansel (France) Mini +18min10
6 Giniel De Villiers (South Africa) Toyota +39min10
7 Christian Lavieille (France) Haval - 46min20
8 Federico Villagra (Argentina) Mini - 47min12
9 Krzysztof Holowczyc (Poland) Mini -1hr 07min00
10 Marek Dabrowski (Poland) 1hr 18min44
RESULTS – MOTORCYCLES: Stage 4
1 Juan Pedrero (Spain) Sherco - 5hrs 29min13
2 Francisco Lopez Contardo (Chile) KTM +29sec
3 Marc Coma (Spain) KTM +3min10
4 Jeremias Israel Esquerre (Chile) Speedbrain +6min30
5 Olivier Pain (France) Yamaha +7min01
6 Joan Barreda Bort (Spain) Honda +13min56
7 Paulo Goncalves (Portugal) Honda +18min38
8 Ivan Jakes (Slovakia) KTM +19min30
9 Alain Duclos (France) Sherco +23min13
10 Daniel Gouet (Chile) Honda +24min38
RESULTS – MOTORCYCLES: Overall after Stage 4
1 Joan Barreda Bort (Spain) Honda – 15hrs 39min53
2 Marc Coma (Spain) KTM +3min10
3 Francisco Lopez Contardo (Chile) KTM +5min12
4 Alain Duclos (France) Sherco +25min55
5 Olivier Pain (France) Yamaha +29min38
6 Cyril Despres (France) Yamaha +41min17
7 David Casteu (France) KTM +42min17
8 Jeremias Israel Esquerre (Chile) Speedbrain +46min33
9 Jordi Viladoms (Spain) KTM +49min14
10 Kuba Przygonski (Poland) KTM +54min52