Oruro, Bolivia – The fifth stage may have been shortened, but that didn’t dull the drama as the 2017 Dakar Rally threw yet another curve ball at the competitors.
This time it was rain – so much rain that the planned 416km timed section of Stage 5 had to be cut by almost half to 219km, as nine-times world rally champion Sebastien Loeb in the leading Peugeot and Nani Roma in the South African-built Overdrive Toyota Hilux bakkie battled it out for line honours in atrocious conditions and South African hero Giniel de Villiers in the Toyota Gazoo SA Racing Hilux lost half an hour, dropping back to eighth overall.
“The navigation today was extremely tricky and we lost a lot of time,” commented De Villiers afterwards. To make things even tougher, the weather wreaked havoc with the stage.”
The 39th running of what has been billed as the world’s toughest motorsport contest has become more of an orienteering exercise than a race; almost all the competitors, including the veterans, have got lost – many more than once – and questions are being asked about new route director Coma’s handling of the course.
Mikko Hirvonen in the leading Mini was lost for more than 40 minutes on Stage 5, dropping him from third to fifth in the overall standings – but not all the problems in Bolivia can be laid at Coma’s door, with the temperature at the flooded bivouac in Oruro down to five degrees – in midsummer! – and mud everywhere.
In the end Loeb took stage honours from Roma by just 44 seconds after an epic two-and-a-half-hour drive. He was more than nine minutes clear at one point before he also wrong-slotted, losing more than eight minutes and setting up a nail-biting finish, with Peugeot veteran Stephane Peterhansel third, less than a minute further back, to re-take the overall lead.
Overnight leader Cyril Despres was fourth, ahead of another Peugeot, driven by Romain Dumas, to make it four Peugeots in the top five. Zimbabwean rally ace Conrad Rautenbach brought his Hilux in sixth for the day, making up for losing more than an hour in each of the previous two stages, ahead of a bunch of slower cars who’d found the right track, and sob stories from lost crews.
All of which left the Peugeot buggies back in command, with Peterhansel leading overall from Loeb and Despres – but the big winner for the day was Toyota's Nani Roma, as he moved up to fourth overall, just five and a half minutes behind Peterhansel.
Hirvonen, now 42 minutes adrift, was just ahead of Mini team-mates Jakub Przygonski and Orlando Terranova, with De Villiers eighth, more than an hour off the pace.
The compass commotion wasn’t limited to the cars (the bikers have to navigate this mess on their own!) but Sam Sunderland somehow managed to find the shortest path to win the day and take the overall bike lead for KTM.
But the day was a disaster for most of the rest.
Overnight leader Matthias Walkner (KTM) and top Honda rider Joan Barreda Bort lost more than 40 minutes each. That – on top of a one-hour penalty for all four works Hondas on Wednesday for refuelling in a prohibited area – knocked early leader Barreda Bort down to 12th overall, while front-runners Pierre Renet (Husqvarna), Stefan Svitko (KTM) and Viscount Xavier de Soultrait (Yamaha) also spent a lot of time struggling to find their way.
Which left the way open for those less lost – Paulo Goncalves (Honda), Adrien van Bevern (Yamaha) Sherco rider Juan Pedrero Garcia, Honda’s Franco Caimi, Gerard Farres Guell (KTM) and overnight leader Pablo Quintanilla (Husqvarna) to fill the top order for the day.
That put Sunderland into the overall lead, 12 minutes ahead of Quintanilla, with Van Beveren third from Farres Guell and Walkner, and De Soultrait sixth.
Leading South African rider David Thomas had a disastrous day; the Capetonian crashed his Husqvarna early in the stage and was airlifted to hospital, but Botswana's Vince Crosbie (KTM) had a good ride to 57th, moving up two places to 42nd overall, while Joey Evans, also on a KTM, finished in the top 100 for the first time, bumping him up from 106th to 102nd overall.
Stage 6 will take the Dakar from Oruro to the Bolivian capital La Paz, with a long, wet, difficult, 527km timed section that starts with some tricky dunes, peaks at 4400 metres and ends at Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable body of water in the world.