Arequipa, Peru - Nine-times world rally champion Sebastien Loeb withdrew from the Dakar Rally on Wednesday while defending champion Stephane Peterhansel stretched his lead after the last full stage in Peru.
Loeb, who won Tuesday's fourth stage for Peugeot and was second overall, stopped five kilometres into the 266km fifth stage from San Juan de Marcona to Arequipa, the last overnight stop before the rally enters Bolivia and the high-altitude stages. He lost two hours waiting for assistance before continuing but, with co-driver Daniel Elena in pain from the jolt in the dunes, had to accept defeat.
"The sand was extremely loose," Loeb said. "We got stuck once and managed to get going again. We got to a crest where another car was stuck. We were following Al-Attiyah and saw him go over, so we did the same, but I hadn't realised there was a hole behind the crest. And, bam, we went right into the hole.
"Right now I'm trying to see how my navigator's doing: we're driving really slowly and, as soon as I go over 30km/h he screams inside the car."
Peterhansel, Loeb's team-mate who had been nearly seven minutes clear on Tuesday and heading for a record 14th Dakar win, took the stage to extend his lead over Carlos Sainz to 31 minutes and 16 seconds. Sainz, also in a Peugeot and a double world rally champion, got bogged down in the dunes early on and was 18 minutes behind Peterhansel at the finish.
The Gazoo Racing SA Toyotas fought back on Wednesday, with Dutch driver Bernhard ten Brinke ending up second on the stage, 4m32s behind Peterhansel and ahead of South African star Giniel de Villiers, Sainz and Nasser Al Attiyah.
Ten Brinke not only recorded a perfectly clean stage, but also kept pace with the leading Peugeot of Stephane Peterhansel over terrain that was much more suited to the buggy.
De Villiers got stuck shortly after starting the stage. He wasn't alone, however, as many of the top drivers lost time in the same area.
"It certainly wasn’t the start we wanted," admitted De Villers afterwards, "but fortunately we didn’t lose too much time today, and we finished the day 13 minutes behind Peterhansel - if we hadn't got stuck near the start, we could have finished much closer.”
De Villiers posted the third-fastest time on the stage, about five minutes ahead of Sainz, despite suffering a puncture mid-stage.
It was a tough day for Al-Attiyah; the current Cross-Country World Cup title holder started the day on a charge, and quickly made up some time over the leaders, only to be slowed by a gearbox problem.
“Luckily the stage was divided into two sections," said Al-Attiyah, "and we were able to catch up with our technical crew between the sections. They did an amazing job to replace our gearbox in just twenty minutes – but that meant that we’d lost even more time.”
Al-Attiyah quickly found his rhythm again, however, and clawed back time throughout the remainder of the stage to finish fifth, having lost only 16 minutes to Peterhansel despite the gearbox change.
That brought the Hiluxes back up to third, fourth and fifth overall behind the Peugeots of Peterhansel and Carlos Sainz, with Ten Brinke ahead of Al Attiyah and De Villiers; the three South African-built bakkies were split by just 23 minutes, making for an interesting race between them going forward.
TreasuryOne Volkswagen Amarok privateer Hennie de Klerk enjoyed a positive day in the sand, bringing it home 37th for the day to move up one place to 33rd overall, while navigator Rob Howie was 16th after guiding Lucio Alvares home.
Joan Barreda Bort mastered the loose sand to win the stage by more than 10 minutes from KTM factory rider Matthias Walkner, catapulting him from 14th to fourth in the overall standngs, while his Honda team-mate Kevin Benevides was third for the day, two minutes further down, moving him up to within a minute of motorcycle leader Adrien van Beveren (Yamaha) in the overall standings.
Van Beveren had a rough day in the dunes, finishing fifth on the stage behind Walkner's team-mate Antoine Meo, 14 minutes behind Barreda Bort and lucky to hold into his overall lead.
Top South African rider David Thomas brought his Husqvarna home a fine 47th, moving up nine places to 48th overall, while Donovan van de Langeberg (KTM) made up two places after posting 58th on Stage 5, to sit 65th overall.
Willem du Toit (KTM) posted his worst stage result yet on the Dakar, finishing 78th - but still moved up two places to 66th overall, while Gerry van der Byl posted his best finish yet in 112th, and moved up eight places to 111th.
Wessel Bosman was the last of 114 surviving motorcycle competitors to finish Stage 5, and was also last in the overall standngs.
The Dakar leaves Peru and the desert on Thursday and heads into the mountains for its sixth stage, with a 313km timed special section, from the city of Arequipa, across the border into Bolivia and up to the shores of Lake Titicaca before ending in La Paz, where it takes its traditional rest day on Friday.
IOL Motoring and Reuters