San Juan, Argentina - Carlos Sainz has moved a step closer to a second Dakar win after finishing the 12th stage with a 44 minute lead over Peugeot team-mate Stephane Peterhansel and two stages remaining.
"We went pretty easy," said Sainz afterwards. "Towards the end we had a puncture and some gearbox problems, but everything is fine because we've finished the stage which is what matters."
Toyota Gazoo Racing SA driver Nasser al-Attiyah won the stage, a 375km timed special between Chilecito and San Juan, in his Hilux with Sainz taking it easy and finishing 18 minutes behind.
Peterhansel, the defending champion and 13 times winner, was second, with South African Dakar hero Giniel de Villiers third in the second works Hilux, ahead of local hero Orlando Terranova's Mini and Bernhard ten Brinke in the third Hilux.
"I think it’s finished now," said Peterhansel, whose hopes of a 14th Dakar win suffered a severe blow last Saturday when he lost an hour and 45 minutes in Bolivia.
"We will try to secure second place, so we controlled the gap with Nasser today," he said. "I’m crossing my fingers for me but also for Carlos - we never know what can happen."
The top 10 continually changed positions through the early part of the stage. Terranova’s Mini, Peterhansel’s Peugeot, Ten Brinke and Al-Attiyah all took turns in the lead with De Villiers and Mikko Hirvonen in a Mini in hot pursuit.
Peterhansel and Al-Attiyah drew clear at the front as the stage wore on and it was Al-Attiyah who ultimately emerged victorious to bring the South African Toyota team its second stage win on the trot.
Overall leader Carlos Sainz eased through the stage to end up ninth for the day as he made sure to get to the finish with Peugeot wingman Cyril Despres in attendance - which was just as well because Depres was quickly on the scene to render assistance when Sainz’s Peugeot stopped with its gearbox stuck in third and a flat tyre.
Less than 20 minutes later Sainz was on his way; in the end he dropped 18 minutes of his huge overall lead over Peterhansel to finish the day a still-comfortable 44 minutes clear of his team-mate.
Al-Attiyah’s third stage win on Dakar 2018 moved him to within 21 minutes of Peterhansel in the overall standings, 12 minutes ahead of Ten Brinke, who was in turn nine minutes clear of De Villiers.
“The stage worked out perfectly for us,” said Al Attiyah at the bivouac in San Juan. “We had a great road position, starting the stage as the fifth car on the road.”
He came in just 2.03s ahead of Peterhansel, after the latter had a big scare when, according to eyewitnesses, the Peugeot driver left the road in sixth gear, and was extremely lucky not to roll or severely damage his car.
De Villiers finished the stage just 4m33s behind team-mate Al-Attiyah.
“We actually had a pretty good stage,” he said after reaching the bivouac at San Juan, nearly 12 hours after setting off from Chilecito. “If it wasn’t for two punctures that cost us more than five minutes, we could well have won the stage.”
'I knew exactly where to cut which wires'
Ten Brinke had won the fearsome Fiambala stage on Wednesday, so his car was the first into Stage 12. Despite having to open the road, he constantly challenged for the stage win, but dropped back after experiencing a small electronic problem.
“We were surprised at how quick we were early in the stage,” said Ten Brinke. “But then we had a problem with the altitude sensor on the car, and had to stop. Luckily I had dealt with a similar issue during testing in Morocco in 2017, so I knew exactly where to cut which wires in order to bypass the sensor. I did the necessary, and we were back on the road. But it cost us maybe five minutes, which was enough to drop us out of the lead.”
Hennie de Klerk brought the TreasuryOne Motorsport Amarok home 30th for the day to move up to 29th overall - and top rookie.
“The Dakar is incredibly tough,” said De Klerk on Thursday evening. “We’ve all had our challenges along the way - a few days ago we were leading rookies and then it all went wrong for us, now our main rookie rivals have hit trouble and we are back ahead.
“We’re all exhausted now,” he said. “I’ve been in the car fifteen or more hours a day, every day - temperatures are reaching the mid 40s and our air conditioner finally packed up for good already last week.
“On Thursday we were in the car from 4am and finally came into San Juan late - and like every time we come in there is plenty work to be done on the car. On Wednesday we came over a dune to find a side-by-side racer stopped just over the other side; his sentinel, which would normally warn us he was there, wasn’t working and I simply couldn’t avoid him. Fortunately he was on the other side of the buggy when we crashed into it.
“That also meant the guys had to work late to fix our car again, but we’ve run out of Amarok headlights and we had to adapt a Hilux headlight to make the car legal.
Organisers cancelled the timed stage for motorcycles and quadbikes for weather-related safety reasons.
"Having consulted the competitors grouped at Fiambala’s marathon bivouac," they said, "the race direction has taken the decision to cancel the 12th special stage for bikes and quads."
Austrian Matthias Walkner led the motorcycle standings on a KTM, 32 minutes clear of Argentina's Honda rider Kevin Benavides, as the bike and quad riders moved to San Juan along the same liaison route as the service crews.
Friday’s penultimate 369km from San Juan to Cordoba is the last real racing stage across the dunes and fesh-fesh before taking to the roads of Argentina’s World Rally Championship stages, which will also be used for Saturday’s short last dance.
IOL Motoring and Reuters