Yamaha's Olivier Pain became the first rider in the 2013 Dakar Rally to hold the overall lead for two days in a row when he won Wednesday's 136km fifth stage from Arequipa in Peru to the Pacific coast at Arica.
Pain and team mate David Casteu took over the lead early in the stage and opened the trail almost all the way, coming in only 69 seconds apart to give Casteu his third career stage victory, followed two minutes later by Alessandro Botturi on a Husqvarna
Pain held on to an overall lead of just 1 minute 15 seconds, with defending champion Cyril Despres, who was fifth on the stage, third just over six minutes off the pace.
“It's really great to win a stage early in the rally when all the riders are still in it.”
Casteu said: “At the end of the Dakar, it can be argued that other riders relax and manage their position. When you win like that with all these riders who've got the bit between their teeth, it's good.”
Pain said: “I wanted to avoid making a mistake so that people wouldn't say, 'He got caught out because he got too big for his boots”.
“But it was a nice stage to ride and I'm still leader!”
Any chance of winning the race virtually ended for Joan Barreda Bort, who won two previous stages. He was held up by a fuel-pump problem 100km in and dropped three hours off the lead.
Dakar rookie Van Niekerk, on a factory KTM 450 Rally, finished the stage 19th, 8min29 behind the leader, and is now 17th overall, 31min21 off the pace.
He said: “It was a bit easier today on what was quite a short stage. The fesh fesh is very difficult to ride in. It’s fine powdery sand, like a thick dust, that makes it impossible to see where you’re going. It’s dangerous, because it can hide rocks and other obstacles that can bring you down.”
Team mate Darryl Curtis took a big rumble early in Tuesday's Stage 4 and then fell again in Stage 5, which turned his go-fast knob down a little. He finished Stage 5 in a steady 1 hour 15 minutes and 11 seconds to come home 24th, 11min29 behind the leader, dropping from 12th to 15th in the overall standings, where he is now 29min15 behind the leaders.
Curtis commented: “Today was our last day in Peru before crossing into Chile, a short special stage that didn’t go so well for me. I had another slow crash in the fesh fesh that’s like a magnet to me. That stuff goes everywhere, in your goggles and everywhere else, and makes you very uncomfortable.
”Later on my stand spring broke, so I had to stop and try to make a plan with cable ties. Tomorrow will be a big test for us, the longest special stage of the rally so far. We’re both quite comfortable at the moment. We’re just taking it day by day and, with a bit of luck, we can hold our positions or improve them by the time we reach the finish in Santiago.”
Honda rider Brett Cummings battled home more than an hour behind Casteu and Pain, finishing the stage 22nd and dropping to 88th overall.
In the quad category, however, Sarel van Biljon (E-ATV) finished fifth, 17min29 behind quad leader Marcos Paronelli (Yamaha), moving up from seventh to fifth overall.
Thursday's long, hard sixth stage starts with a 291km liaison section followed by 455km 'on the clock', in two sections separated by a neutral zone.
The first stage of the 2013 Dakar on Chilean territory takes the riders out into the Atacama desert for the first time this year, with more than two-thirds of the timed section over sand and dunes.
It will be a very long day, with competitors who run into problems straggling in after dark.
RESULTS – STAGE FIVE
1 David Casteu (France) Yamaha - 1hr 39min 42sec
2 Olivier Pain (France) Yamaha - +1min09
3 Alessandro Botturi (Italy) Husqvarna +3min25
4 Cyril Despres (France) KTM +4min07
5 Helder Rodrigues (Portugal) Honda +4:52
6 Alain Duclos (France) Sherco +5min01
7 Jakub Przygonski (Poland) KTM +5min49
8 Ruben Faria (Portugal) KTM +6min04
9 Gerard Farres Guell (Spain) Honda +7min15
10 Jordi Viladoms (Spain) Husqvarna +7min23
1 Olivier Pain (France) Yamaha 11hr 51min 29sec
2 David Casteu (France) Yamaha) +1min15
3 Cyril Despres (France) KTM +6min07
4 Ruben Faria (Portugal) KTM +13min34
5 Jordi Viladoms (Spain) Husqvarna +13min36
6 Alessandro Botturi (Italy) Husqvarna +14min00
7 Jakub Przygonski (Poland) KTM +19min00
8 Javier Pizzolito (Argentina) Honda +25min45
9 Helder Rodrigues (Portugal) Honda +25min58
10 Alain Duclos (France) Sherco +27min49.