BISHA, Saudi Arabia: The Dakar Rally’s record 14-time champion Stephane Peterhansel powered to stage 10 success on Wednesday as only a mechanical meltdown appears now to stand between Nasser al Attiyah and the 2022 title. The Qatari three-time winner heads into Thursday’s penultimate stage 32min 40sec clear of France’s nine-time world rally champion Sebastien Loeb.
“The gap is too big and the race is no longer in our hands, but we’re still hanging in there,” shrugged Loeb after the 375km drive from Wadi Ad Dawasir to Bisha. Despite his runaway lead, Al Attiyah was retaining the caution required for an event where victory can disappear as easily as a mirage in the Saudi Arabian desert.
“We’re getting there, little by little,” said the multi-faceted sportsman who took skeet shooting bronze at the 2012 London Olympics.
“It’s not over yet, there are still two days to go and even a podium spot will be hard to get.”
Peterhansel, known as ‘Mr Dakar’, won last year, three decades after his first victory on two wheels in 1991.
The only competitor to win the famed rally in Africa, South America and Asia, Peterhansel was thrilled to land a stage in his Audi hybrid.
“I’m not necessarily a stage hunter, but each Audi driver has now won a stage, and that’s fantastic,” the Frenchman said.
“When Carlos (Sainz) became the first driver to win a Dakar stage in an electric car, it was a milestone, now we confirmed that performance.”
With Sainz taking second there was double reason for Audi to celebrate. “This is good for morale, not least because it comes after a complicated start to the rally,” said Peterhansel.
“We need to win in 2023. Failure is not an option.”
In the bike category, France’s Adrien Van Beveren moved to the top of the rankings after a day marked by the premature end of Kevin Benavides’ title defence.
Argentina’s 2021 champion came unstuck 133km into the stage when his KTM suffered a terminal breakdown. Benavides had started the day in fifth, 10min 22sec adrift.
Another KTM rider, Matthias Walkner, also had a difficult day, losing the overall lead after going off course with a navigational error to finish quarter of an hour behind Australian stage winner Toby Price.
Van Beveren, on a Yamaha, gave his chances of succeeding Benavides a massive boost by finishing fourth, at three and a half minutes, to reclaim the bike rankings’ summit after briefly holding sway at the weekend.
With only two days to go, he is almost six minutes clear of Briton’s 2017 champion Sam Sunderland, his brother-in-law.
Sunderland reflected: “All in all, I’m happy, I prepared well this year and I think it shows. I’ve led the race for seven days. Now we just need to go flat out again tomorrow.”
Thursday’s 11th stage is a 346km special and the last day in the dunes ahead of the closing short drive to the finish in Jeddah on Friday. — AFP