Before the start of the 2014 edition of the Dakar, rumor had it that organizers were attempting to return the race’s brutal nature to its historical norms. Some followers of the event had claimed that since the race had moved to South America that it has “softened” with many sections more closely resembling a WRC event rather than the rough and tumble, wide open Rally-Raid it had been known for. 2014 appears to be a return to form. By the beginning of today’s Stage 4, there had already been 30 withdrawals in the car category (out of some 147 entries) and in truth, the race has hardly begun—not yet reaching the longest marathon stages where teams will be without support over the course of a multiple days.
That said, there is one team that has appeared to be virtually immune to the increased level of difficulty. Sure, Stephane Peterhansel and his Mini had a reported six (!) punctures on Stage 3 but this seems like a hiccup when compared to the blown turbo and DNF of Carlos Sousa and his Haval, vapor lock issues of many American teams, and a fouling up of a tricky dune section that caused the DNF of both Peter Hajas’s Brenthal effort and the factory Ford Ranger team of South African Chris Visser who flew his vehicle off a crest, rolled heavily and suffered a neck injury requiring a helicopter evacuation.
At the unofficial “midpoint” of Stage 4, prior to a long liaison section before beginning the second timed sector of the day, the leaderboard looked like a virtual Mini parade with six of the top seven fastest times of the day held by the Monster backed juggernaut. Guerlain Chicherit had run out to an early lead by CP1 but the LS powered buggy came to a halt shortly thereafter with an unknown issue and rapidly tumbled down the daily standings only to regain momentum before reportedly busting an oil cooler leading to an engine fire and terminating the race for one of the two Eric Vigouroux Racing buggies. Both driver and codriver escaped unharmed.
Coming out of the liaison section and returning to timed racing saw Nasser Al-Attiyah put the hammer down in his Mini, having already physically passed Robby Gordon earlier in the day and was now chasing down his teammates in the other Minis. No one has ever questioned Al-Attiyah’s ability to drive his vehicles at insanely high speeds for long periods—his willingness to run at 9/10ths in order to care for his equipment has, however, been his Achilles heel at times. By CP8 Al-Attiyah had opened up over a five minute lead on Carlos Sainz who was gamely breaking up Mini’s dominance on the day but could not quite keep up the pace set by the Qatari to that point. At over 400 miles in length, however, the stage was far from over.
Despite enduring several more punctures Stephane Peterhansel fought back, eventually leapfrogging Al-Attiyah on time finishing second on the day which was filled with numerous river crossings and rocky gorges. Attiyah’s lead would evaporate, ironically for such an individualistic personality, when he chose to follow the lead of his Mini teammates into a navigational error costing him precious time and also suffered a flat (after four the day before) in need of repair which is beginning to look like a pattern of weakness for the Minis. “…the only real mistake we made was following the other Minis in front, which must have cost us about 5 minutes before we decided to turn around and take the right direction. We also had a flat tyre. However, I think it was a rather good day overall…”
Taking the win with a furious comeback was El Matador, Carlos Sainz, already owner of the WRC record for the most starts taken in a career, and he now possesses 26 stage wins at the Dakar. Sainz ran at a consistent pace but had fallen to 5:11 back of Al-Attiyah as of the eighth waypoint, but pounced upon the Mini’s mistakes (old age and treachery overtaking youth and enthusiasm?) to take a 1:56 lead a short time later at WP9. Sainz would suffer a power steering failure in the waning moments of the stage but it would not keep him from either the Stage 4 win or from moving into the overall lead. Heading into Stage 5 Sainz will take with him a 2:06 lead over Stage 3 winner Nani Roma and a near seven minute lead over Al-Attiyah.
North Americans remain in short supply amongst the car entries though Toyo shod Robby Gordon continues to report a lack of punctures and with a now seemingly well functioning fuel system finished the day in 14th place, 42:16 back of Sainz for the stage and is listed in 31st overall at the moment, 4:16:44 adrift. BJ Baldwin also appears to have resolved much of his vapor lock issues, starting the day out behind a far larger contingent of competitors than did Gordon but running only slightly slower, finishing 25th on the day, just over an hour back of the winner—a much improved starting position on Stage 5 might just let BJ compete for that desired stage victory over his countrymate, Gordon.
Amongst those competitors not at the sharp end of the spear has been David Bensadoun of Canada who has been piloting a UK built Desert Warrior and the El Martillo Jimco based team of fellow Canadian Matthew Campbell—both of which had reached, but not yet completed the “liaison” section at the unofficial midpoint of the stage as of this time. A long night in the South American wilderness may await both teams…
Stage 4 for the bikes and quads followed a separate track than did the cars this day and also represented the second day of the “marathon stage” in which the riders could not receive outside assistance or replacement parts. Riding on used tires vs. the freshies they had been used to, made the day even sketchier than usual—not that the bikes and quads have had it easy to this point, a fact borne out by the loss of top flight competitors such as Marcos Patronelli (quads) and Ruben Faria (bikes) in prior days.
A Honda rider had taken stage wins in the first three days of this year’s event, an interesting turn of events given that KTM has won the last 11 consecutive overall Dakars and though a non-Honda would take the top step of the Stage 4 podium, it would again, not be a KTM.
Instead it was the SR 450 Rally Sherco of Spaniard Juan Pedrero Garcia. After finishing fifth in the ’13 and ‘11 editions of the event, Garcia is aiming at a podium this year and sits in 16th overall 1:39 back. The overall leader on bikes remains Garcia’s countrymate Joan Barreda Bort on his Honda. Finishing sixth on the day, almost 14 minutes back of the winning time, Bort was able to stay close to his primary competitors Marc Coma (another man from the Iberian peninsula) and Chilean Francisco Lopez Contardo both on KTMs and remains 3:10 ahead of the field. Lurking in the sixth (after having come into the day in second position) and 41:17 back of Bort lies five time Dakar winner Cyril Depres who was an unaccustomed 42 minutes back on the day due to a very late electrical short. “My positioning system broke. I had to do a little handiwork to repair it,” said Despres. “But I am not discouraged. The day that I give up is the day I go home. I love this race and there are plenty of stages left before the finish at Valparaiso on January 18.”
Of note for North American fans is that with privateer Peter Hardy suffering a bike and backpack fire on Stage two of the race and Kevin Muggleton losing a tire during the Marathon stage (and thus unable to obtain a replacement) the number of “local” riders has been dwindling. Carlos Gracida Garza and Octavio Valle remain “in the field” at the moment and are still on the move while Jeff Quade is a confirmed DNF due to a crash and Mike Johnson started the day but appears to have never advanced past way point two.
Photos by: Willy Weyens, Mini X-Raid Agency
|Stage 4 Car Ranking|
|1. Sainz (ESP)||005:20:32|
|2. Peterhanse (FRA)||005:26:36||+00:06:04|
|3. Al-Attiyah (QAT)||005:29:30||+00:08:58|
|4. Villagra (ARG)||005:33:51||+00:13:19|
|5. Roma (ESP)||005:34:40||+00:14:08|
|14. Gordon (USA)||006:02:48||+00:42:16|
|25. Baldwin (CAN)||006:26:25||+01:05:53|
|. Mathew (CAN)||?||+?|
|. Chicherit (FRA)||OUT||OUT|
|OVERALL Car Ranking after Stage 4|
|1. Sainz (ESP)||014:52:47|
|2. Roma (ESP)||014:54:53||+00:02:06|
|3. Al-Attiyah (QAT)||014:59:43||+00:06:56|
|4. Terranova (ARG)||015:05:55||+00:13:08|
|5. Peterhansel (FRA)||015:10:57||+00:18:10|
|31. Gordon (USA)||019:09:10||+04:16:23|
|43. Baldwin (USA)||021:09:10||+07:01:59|
|?. Mathew (CAN)||?||+?|