Tupiza, Bolivia - Reigning champion Stephane Peterhansel fought back to win the eighth stage of the Dakar Rally in Bolivia on Sunday but Peugeot team-mate Carlos Sainz remained more than an hour clear of the field.
Peterhansel lost an hour and 45 minutes repairing his car on Saturday when he hit a rock while leading, dropping to third place overall while Sainz took over at the front.
On Sunday, in the longest special stage of the race and having to contend with high altitude and rain after a stopover without mechanical assistance, the 13-times champion known as 'Mr Dakar' secured the 40th stage win of his career.
It was also his second stage win of the 2018 Dakar but, with Monday's timed stage leading into Argentina cancelled due to weather conditions, he knew it was unlikely to make much of a difference.
"At least we didn't run into trouble, which is good," he said of the 498-km special stage from the salt flats of Uyuni to Tupiza. "I'm not back in the game, because we're talking hours of time difference and I just got a few minutes back.
"Gaining two minutes on Nasser al-Attiyah won't bring us back into the game. It's a pity that tomorrow's stage has been cancelled because we needed every opportunity we could get our hands on to claw back time."
'It's going to be difficult'
Peterhansel was an hour and 13 minutes off the lead, while Sainz finished fifth for the day, 7m04s seconds slower than Peterhansel, but remained an hour and six minutes clear of Toyota Gazoo Racing SA challenger Al-Attiyah's Hilux.
"We'll try to do our best in the next six days," said Al-Attiyah, a former double Dakar winner. "If Carlos makes a mistake, we can catch him. But one hour... it's going to be difficult."
Al-Attiyah finished just two minutes adrift of Peterhansel, and 1m22s behind Peterhansel's Peugeot team-mate Cyril Despres, who is well out of contention for the overall win but certainly proved his pace on Stage 8.
The pair drove a faultless stage to finish just two minutes adrift of Peterhansel, and 01:22 behind Peugeot’s Cyril Despres, who is well out of contention in the event, but certainly proved his pace on Stage 8.
"This leaves us in second place overall at the moment, still ahead of Peterhansel," Al-Attiyah commented, "with at least two very difficult stages to come.”
His team-mate, Dutch driver Bernhard ten Brinke set, the fourth-fastest time on Stage 8, trailing stage winner Peterhansel five minutes, and remaining within reach of an overall podium finish.
Having finished second on Stage 7, South African Dakar hero Giniel de Villiers was running second on the road on Sunday, until his works Hilux ended up stuck in a deep hole on the off-road section.
“It was such a close call,” explained De Villiers from Tupiza. “I saw the hole a moment too late to avoid it, and then tried to power through. We very nearly made it, but ended up getting stuck in a precarious position.
"We had to take out the spare wheels, jack up the car and move it bit by bit using the spare wheels as a foundation. We eventually got going again, but had a puncture mid-way through the stage. Other than that, we actually had a good run, and were able to run at the same pace as the leaders.”
Some mystery still surrounds South African privateer Hennie de Klerk, who vanished from the official timing computers late on Saturday afternoon after spending more than four hours in Sector 6 of Stage 7. With service crews not permitted at the Uyuni bivouac, nothing was heard from De Klerk for almost 24 hours, until his number on the board suddenly lit up again on Sunday afternoon, showing him running 35th towards the end of Stage 8.
There was obviously not much wrong with the TreasuryOne Amarok, as De Klerk made up another three places to finish 32nd for the day and retain his 32nd position overall - but his page on the official website still shows no time or position for Stage 7...
French Yamaha rider Adrien van Beveren remained in the lead but with a reduced advantage after a stage won by works KTM rider Antoine Meo, who took advantage of bad weather in the final sector, pushing hard where most of the leaders played it safe to finish just 1m08s ahead of a storming ride by American Ricky Brabec (Honda).
Meo's KTM factory team-mate Toby Price was third, less than three minutes adrift after five and a half hours of mud and camel-grass, ahead of Kevin Benavides (Honda), Stefan Svitko (KTM), KTM factory rider Matthias Walkner, Van Beveren and Honda hero Joan Barreda Bort - back in the saddle despite a knee injury on Stage 7 that left him unable to walk without assistance.
Van Beveren actually played it a little too safe on the second half of the marathon double stage, as Benavides closed in to within just 22 seconds overall. The top six were within 10 seconds with only five stages left after the cancellation of Monday's Stage 9 before the finish in Cordoba, Argentina on Saturday 20 January, setting the stage for a dramatic finale.
Top lady rider Laia Sanz (KTM) put in a cracker of a ride to finish 10th for the day and move up four places to 14th overall, but Rosa Romero Font (KTM) and Gabriela Novotna (Husqvarna) battled in the difficult conditions, finishing 82nd and 90th respectively for the day.
Leading South African rider David Thomas (Husqvarna) lost six places on the stage, coming in 51st for the day, but retained his 45th spot overall, while Willem du Toit (KTM) started 60th, finished 71st and still made up two places to 58th overall. Even more dramatically, Donovan van de Langeberg started 55th, lost ground to finish Stage 8 74th - but moved up three spots to 55tb overall, while Gerry van der Byl (KTM) stone last on the road, made up two places due to retirements ahead of him.
Monday's Stage 9 was cancelled due to localised flooding on the route, so the rally will cross the border into Argentina without further timed stages, which will resume on Tuesday with Stage 10 from Salta to Belen.