Rio Cuarto, Argentina - Defending champion Stephane Peterhansel has edged closer to his 13th Dakar Rally title by finishing a close second to Peugeot team-mate Sebastien Loeb in Friday's penultimate stage.
The nine-times world rally champion tore over the San Juan dunes in the 11th and last big stage to slash three minutes off Peterhansel's lead in the first section. But in the second section heading to Cordoba, on a route perfectly suited to him, Loeb got a puncture and had to watch Peterhansel drive past.
The wheel replaced, Loeb finished the 759km Stage 11 from San Juan to Rio Cuarto in Argentina in 3h21m15s, to take his fourth stage win of the 2017 Dakar by just 18 seconds from Peterhansel.
"We had to change the wheel and Stephane passed us,” Loeb said afterwards. “We didn't try so much after that, because it was lost. I think the gap is too big for the short stage tomorrow."
Argentinian Orlando Terranova was third for Mini, 6m37s further back, after a day-long duel with South Africa’s Giniel de Villiers in the sole surviving Toyota Gazoo Racing SA Hilux bakkie.
Team principal Glyn Hall explained: “We were expecting a big challenge from Terranova today, so we striped the Hilux of every conceivable spare part to lighten it. In the end it paid off, because we found out Terranova had done exactly the same thing!
“It was a bit of a risk, but in the end it’s a good reflection of the level of competition at this late stage of the race."
De Villiers began the day fifth overall, with a lead of 2m27s over Terranova, and started the first part of the 292km timed section on a charge, notching up a 90 second advantage, but an early puncture halted his progress and gave Terranova the chance to close the gap. The local man, racing in a part of the country that he knew well, made the most of it and pushed as hard as he could.
"But then we reached the second section of the racing stage, after a long liaison," said De Villiers. "We pushed quite hard, and in the end, we only lost 23 seconds to the Mini.
“We're still the best part of two minutes up on Terranova, and because tomorrow's stage is only 64km, we should be able to stay fifth overall."
Overdrive Racing’s Nani Roma remained the leading Toyota Hilux driver, in fourth overall, despite losing just over 15 minutes in Stage 11. "We actually had a clean run today," Roma said at Río Cuarto. "But I was quite cautious in the first section, and lost most of my time there." Zimbabwean rally ace Conrad Rautenbach, also in a South African-built Hilux, put in another solid drive to finish eighth for the day, retaining his position as ninth overall and leading rookie.
With only 64km of timed section still to be run, Peterhansel was leading Loeb by 5m32s in the overall standing, with Cyril Despres in the third Peugeot 32m54s further behind. Peterhansel looked set for a record-extending 13th Dakar Rally win, having already won it six times on a motorcycle and six times in a car, but was full of praise for his only serious rival, team-mate Loeb. "It is really an honour for me to fight with Sebastien," he said. "I know he's really fast on a rally-type track. He's my team-mate and we have a lot of respect. "Just before the last stage, we smiled together and joked together so the team spirit is really good."
Sam Sunderland was beginning to believe that he could actually become the first British rider to win the Dakar this time, after being having been forced to retire in 2012 and 2014 due to mechanical problems
He finished a safe fifth on Stage 11, nine minutes behind stage leader Joan Barreda Bort on the leading works Honda, who took his third consecutive stage win to ram home the point that, had it not been for a one-hour penalty imposed early in the race for refuelling in a prohibited area, he would be leading the 389th running of the world’s toughest motorsport contest.
However, with just one short racing stage to go, Dubai-based Sunderland was leading KTM team-mates Matthias Walkner and Gerard Farres Guell by more than half an hour. But perhaps because of his Dakar history, he wasn't willing to claim the win yet.
"We're here, we're safe and we have just one more day of the Dakar," he said. "I think the gap is around 30 minutes. I'd like it to be three hours, but it's better than 30 seconds.
"Victory is starting to creep into the mind a little bit and I'm trying to fight it away and stay focused on the job," he added.
"It's hard to explain the things that go through your mind when you're on the bike for 12 to 14 hours a day on your own. You start to have all kinds of crazy thoughts. It's not easy to keep them quiet and focus on the job."
Missing in action
Botswana’s Vince Crosbie (KTM) finished 28th for the day, moving up three places to 35th overall, while South Africa’s Para to Dakar hero Joey Evans came in 96th after a marathon 15 hours on the road, dropping two places overall from 92nd to 94th - but a better measure of the severely disabled former paraplegic was that he was still going - and that there were three able-bodied riders behind him in the overall standings.
Stage 12 will be run near the town of Río Cuarto, followed by a 722km liaison that will take the Dakar Rally survivors to the final podium in Buenos Aires.
Xinhua, Reuters, IOL Motoring