Cordoba, Argentina - Carlos Sainz was one stage away from winning the Dakar Rally on Friday but Peugeot’s hopes of a one-two finish in Argentina disappeared after reigning champion Stephane Peterhansel hit trouble.
Sainz, father of the Renault Formula One driver of the same name, ended the penultimate 13th stage from San Juan to Cordoba with a lead of 46m18s over Toyota Gazoo Racing SA’s Nasser al-Attiyah.
With only 120km of timed special stage remaining around Cordoba, Sainz’s second Dakar victory looks assured in what will be a fitting farewell for the Peugeot works team in its final appearance.
Sainz took no risks on Friday’s marathon 929km stage, which was dominated by Al-Attiyah, who took his fourth stage win on Dakar 2018; Sainz finished 19m37s behind the Qatari.
Peterhansel, a 13 times Dakar winner on bikes and cars, had started the day second overall but clipped a tree with his front left wheel on a bend that was hidden by a bump. The impact broke a steering rod, with the support team carrying out repairs once he was out of the timed zone, and also left the Frenchman with a sprained thumb.
The delay cost him 57 minutes - even with help from Peugeot ‘water carrier’ Cyril Depres - and dropped him behind Al-Attiyah in the overall standings.
That left Al-Attiyah to take an easy stage win from a delighted Villagra, with De Villiers third in a Toyota 1-2-3 ahead of the Minis of Jakub Przygonski and Mikko Hirvonen, fourth and fifth from Sainz in sixth.
The day started with a battle between Toyota trio Bernhard ten Brinke, Al-Attiyah, and Giniel de Villiers, with Toyota Hilux privateer Lucio Alvares and South African navigator Rob Howie joining the scrap ahead of overall race leader Sainz and Peterhansel back in ninth and off the pace, 7 minutes adrift.
Then Peterhansel crashed heavily for the second time in four days; no sooner had the Toyotas moved up into second, third and fourth, than Ten Brinke’s Hilux suffered a terminal mechanical infarction, and De Villiers was slowed by a misfire.
"Shortly after we started the second section of today’s stage, we heard that there was something wrong with the engine,” explained a disappointed Ten Brinke after returning to the bivouac. “About 60km into the section, the engine just stopped and we couldn’t restart it, so we had no choice but to retire."
Giniel de Villiers finished 13m06s behind Al-Attiyah after spending nearly 14 hours in the Hilux on the day.“It was an extremely long day, and the stage was a proper test,” said De Villiers. “We had a fairly good run, though we suffered a misfire in the second part of the stage, which cost us quite a bit of time. And we have to make sure that we stay ahead of Peterhansel tomorrow, so there’s still a bit of a race on.”
South African privateer Hennie de Klerk, now the leading rookie in his Ford V8-powered TreasuryOne Amarok, equalled his best stage result yet, coming in 26th for the day to move up four places to 26th in the overall standings.
“It’s been an extremely tough Dakar,” he said at Cordoba. “There are less than half the cars that started left in the race and we were one of only two rookie teams of the 17 that entered.”
De Klerk could have simply bought a Hilux or a Ranger, but instead built his own race car to take on the world in the Dakar. Now the unique TreasuryOne Amarok is on the verge of stealing an unlikely rookie victory.
“There are some brilliant Dakar race cars built in South Africa,” he said, “but I wanted to do it differently, so I decided to work with CWT Engineering in Johannesburg to build my own One Amarok.
Why a Ford engine?
“We’ve had so many people asking why a Ford V8-powered Amarok, but the rationale is simple - it uses a similar tubular-frame chassis covered with a glass fibre moulded body that resembles a road bakkie - just like the Hiluxes, Rangers and Renaults.
“We initially used a 2.5-litre turbocharged five-cylinder Audi TT RS engine that sounded like those great race and rally Audis of the 80s, but when we decided to do the Dakar, we had to convert to a V8 to comply with Dakar regulations that call for only turbodiesel or naturally aspirated petrol engines.
“We chose a 5-litre Ford Mustang V8 because it had the necessary performance, it was cost effective and had proven to be competitive and reliable in the Rangers, so we went that route.
“And it worked - we wanted to finish the Dakar our way at our first attempt and here we are, 120km from the finish and the first rookies on the road!”
Sainz headed into the final day with a 46 minute lead over Al-Attiyah; De Villiers is third, half an hour behind, with Peterhansel dropping to fourth, just eight minutes behind De Villiers and ahead of Przygonski and Sheikh Rashiid Al Qassimi in a privately entered Peugeot.
Australian Price, the 2016 winner, took his second consecutive stage win by just 2m03s from local hero Kevin Benavides, moving up to within five minutes of the Honda rider in the overall standings and setting the stage for a cliffhanger final-stage showdown for second.
Overall leader Matthias Walkner, by contrast, sat back and let factory KTM team-mates Price and Antoine Meo fight it out with Benavides. Meo finished the day third, 41 seconds behind Benavides, while Walkner came in fourth, nine minutes later, but with a 21 minute advantage over Benavides in the overall standings still in hand.
Californian Ricky Brabec - sixth overall at the start of the day and running with the leaders on Staghe 13 - suffered a battery problem that caused his Honda CRF450 to catch fire. A handful of sand doused the flames but after four hours of battling in the heat he was unable to get the bike running again and was forced to retire.
KTM poster girl Laia Sanz battled in the ultra-soft sand they call fesh-fesh for the sound that it makes as you walk through it, but still finished 13th for the day and moved up a place to 12th overall, the only woman rider still going.
The slander six-footer from Barcelona is still only 32 years old, and has 16 world trials and enduro titles to her name; she won her first world trials title when she was 12. Her major ambition now is not to win the women’s motorcycle category of the Dakar Rally (she’s done that six times already - every time she’s entered) but to become the first woman to win it outright.
Her best result so far has been ninth overall, in 2015 on a Montesa.
Top South African rider David Thomas (Husqvarna) posted his best stage result yet, finishing 27th for the day and moving up two places to 36th overall, while Donovan van de Langeberg (KTM) was also on form, finishing 60th on the stage to move up a spot to 54th overall.
Willem du Toit soldiered on in 69th, dropping a position to 58th overall, while Gerry van der Byl and his KTM were still out on the stage when timing closed. That has happened before, and Van der Byl’s name was not on the dreaded list of withdrawals, so it was more than possible that he would be there, stone last but still running, for the start of the final stage at Cordoba on Sunday morning
Stage 14 is only 120 km in length, and is comprised mainly of rally tracks in the area around Cordoba. There is also a liaison of 166 km, but compared to the rest of the race, Stage 14 might have been nothing more than a formality, had the race not been quite as close as it is.
IOL Motoring and Reuters