La Paz, Bolivia - Defending champion Stephane Peterhansel led the Dakar Rally into Bolivia on Thursday but Peugeot team-mate Carlos Sainz trimmed the Frenchman's lead with his first stage win of the 2018 race.
Peterhansel ended the sixth stage from the Peruvian city of Arequipa to La Paz with a 27-minute advantage over Sainz, a double former world rally champion and father of the Formula One driver with the same name.
Sainz beat Peterhansel by 4m06s over the 313km stage, split into two sections with a 238km neutralised stint to the shores of Lake Titicaca and the Bolivian Altiplano. The first 118km section of the stage ended at an altitude of 4,722 metres.
Peterhansel has won more Dakars than anyone and is now chasing his 14th title. He drove a measured day to fend off the chasing pack headed by Toyota Gazoo Racing SA duo, Nasser al-Attiyah and Giniel de Villiers, while Cyril Despres’ Peugeot finished fifth, ahead of Mini driver Mikko Hirvonen and the third 'works' Toyota Hilux of Bernhard ten Brinke.
All three Hilux drivers reported clean runs, with Al-Attiyah posting the third-fastest time on Stage 6 - 313km of special stage and 447km of liaison between Arequipa in Peru and the Bolivian city of La Paz. De Villiers was fourth fastest on the day, finishing the stage 5m31s behind Sainz, but it clear that the naturally aspirated V8 engine of the Hilux was at a disadvantage on the high-altitude stage.
“We certainly felt the power deficit,” said De Villiers after spending more than 12 hours behind the wheel. “But in the end, the fact that those buggies are more than 300kg lighter than our car made the biggest difference on the day.”
Dutch driver Bernhard ten Brinke continued his impressive progress, despite running as the second car on the road, with very little help from the leading Peugeot, especially on the second part of the stage where there were almost no tracks to follow.
“Even so, we went well," said Ten Brinke at the La Paz bivouac. “If anything, I think we can move to a more aggressive setup for the coming stages, as these are closer to rally stages than cross-country stages.”
Ten Brinke finished the stage seventh, 9m31s behind Sainz, retaining his third position overall, with Al-Attiyah fourth and De Villiers fifth, only 1h35m59s behind Peterhansel in the lead, and the three Hiluxes separated by just 15 minutes in the battle for the final podium step.
Argentine driver Lucio Alvares and South African navigator Rob Howie, also in a Hilux, Martin Prokop’s Ford F150 and Jakub Przygonski in a Mini rounded out the top 10 on Stage 6.
Dakar rookie Hennie de Klerk enjoyed his best day yet, taking the TreasuryOne Amarok to 26th for the day and moving up a place to 32nd overall, consolidate his strong second place among the rookies, only 12 minutes behind the leading debutant, Czech driver Boris Vaculik in a Ford F-150 Evo.
“Today was much better,” De Klerk smiled on reaching La Paz. “We’re finished with the dunes for now and today was all about cross country conditions, something I know well, except of course for the extreme altitude.
“The stage conditions were mostly gravel and it rained for most of the day - it’s unbelievable to think that after racing most of the week in 35 degree temperatures, we started today’s race at minus one degrees and above 5000 metres altitude.
“The Dakar circus is gruelling; we’ve spent on average 12 hours a day in the car, travelling from town to town and racing in-between. And if that isn’t tough enough, it seems they are doing their utmost to break man and machine - Dakar really is the ultimate test!”
The car category now looks sure to be won by one of the Peugeot drivers in what is also the manufacturer's farewell to the event. However, nothing can be taken for granted in the treacherous and tricky conditions.
The motorcycles produced a cracking stage as Frenchman Antoine Meo powered his KTM to the win, 30 seconds clear of a dead heat for second between his works KTN team-mate Toby Price and Honda-mounted Argentine Kevin Benavides. Fourth, out of nowhere, was Argentinian Honda rider Diego Martin du Plessis, enjoying his best day on the Dakar by far, and moving up two places overall from 25th to 23rd.
He was followed home by Daniel Oliveras Carreras (KTM), Pablo Quintanilla (Husqvarna), Daniel Nosiglia Jager (KTM), erstwhile overall leader Adrien van Beveren (Yamaha), works Honda team-mates Joan Barreda Bort and Michael Metge, and Matthias Walkner on the third factory KTM (who would have been seventh, but for a one-minute penalty) - all within four minutes of the leader.
So close was the leading pack that a two-minute penalty knocked Van Beveren's works Yamaha team-mate Xavier de Soultrait from a provisional ninth to 16th for the day, and dropped him two places overall, from fifth to seventh.
Benavides took over the overall lead from Van Beveren, just 1m57s clear of his Yamaha rival with eight stages, including the weekend's marathon stage, still to go.
Top South African rider David Thomas (Husqvarna) splashed home in 58th place, dropping one spot to 49th overall. KTM rider Willem du Toit, by contrast, posted his best Dakar stage so far to finish 64th, but retained his 65th spot overall.
Gerry van der Byl, also KTM-mounted, did even better; he started the stage 113th, finished 98th and moved up three places overall to 108th. Sadly, Wessel Bosman opted not to continue on Thursday morning, after a brave effort at the back of the field.
Friday is a rest day in La Paz, followed by a two-day marathon stage from La Paz to Uyuni (787km), and from Uyuni to Tupiza (585km), with no outside help allowed from service crews at the Uyuni bivouac.
IOL Motoring and Reuters