Riyadh — France's nine-time world rally champion Sebastien Loeb made inroads into overall Dakar leader Nasser al-Attiyah's advantage after finishing third in Monday's 395 kilometres special stage from Al Dawadimi to Wadi Ad Dawasir.
Loeb admitted that despite reducing Qatari driver Al-Attiyah's lead to less than 38 minutes — the event finishes on January 14 — it had been a "very stressful day" on a stage won by Sweden's Mattias Ekstrom in an Audi hybrid vehicle.
"We were going along at a heck of a rhythm and then had a puncture after 28km," said Loeb.
"We quickly changed the tyre losing less than two minutes.
"We regained our old rhythm till the halfway point when we saw that we had lost our spare wheel and it was the only one we had left, so I was a bit careful at the end, but I think in the end I drove a good stage."
Al-Attiyah bidding for a fourth win in the race said it had been a nerve-wracking drive.
“For 350 km we had one puncture and then we only had front-wheel drive because we broke the rear," he said.
"I was really scared all the way. On the last part I said, 'I don’t care, on the last 50 kilometres I will try to push a little bit'.
"But it was not easy with just the front-wheel drive. I'm really lucky to be here."
The 51-year-old Qatari added even with his sizeable lead he was far from assuming he had the title in the bag.
"The Dakar is never finished, you know? We'll try to respect the Dakar," he said.
"The Dakar is the Dakar."
The motorbike section is far tighter with Britain's 2017 champion Sam Sunderland regaining the overall lead after winning the stage on his KTM bike.
The 32-year-old Dubai-based rider leads Austria's world champion Mattias Walkner by 3min 45sec though less than six minutes covers the top four.
"It looks like the race is really close this year and it's cool for everybody at home watching," said Sunderland.
"It's difficult for us as riders, it's a bit like an emotional rollercoaster.
"Anyway, I have to be happy with the good times and try to take care when I have a rough day like yesterday.
"I felt so down because I had quite a rough day.
"I just have to try and stay motivated and keep banging the hammer because there are still some long days to come, I'm sure."