Dakar: Al-Attiyah and Sanders see double prologue stage wins
Jan 02 2022- After the overnight rain over Ha’il and northern Saudi Arabia, mist enveloped the area as the first competitors departed the bivouac in the wee hours. The programme gave pride of place to sand amid mountains reaching up to 1,500 masl and famous around the globe for their rock art. While there were parts with stones, sandy tracks made up 85% of the special, including 4% of dunes. Transposed to the 333 km timed sector, these figures packed a real punch! As David Castera had underlined at the previous day’s briefing, the competitors had to be ready for the chips to come down. Stéphane Peterhansel and Carlos Sainz can only agree (see A crushing blow). The two Audi stars got a rude awakening.
Daniel Sanders just had to hold his own today —easier said than done, even from the advantageous starting position that he had earned with yesterday’s tour de force. The man from Down Under logically decided to start in 15th place and make full use of the benefits of the new Dakar regulations. He surged past the 14 riders ahead of him to cross the finish line of the special in first place. It will come as no surprise that the GasGas biker posted the best time, 2?07? faster than Pablo Quintanilla’s. Honda’s Chilean rider is also second in the general standings, where he trails the two-time stage winner by 3?07?. Further back, Matthias Walkner conceded over 10 minutes as many other favourites made mistakes fatal to their title prospects: Kevin Benavides lost 36 minutes, Joan Barreda, 41, Toby Price, 47 and “Nacho” Cornejo, 53.
Nasser Al-Attiyah crushed the opposition after starting in tenth place, blasting past nine other cars along the way. The only driver who was able to match his pace, Sébastien Loeb, made the sensible choice to stick to Al-Attiyah and Baumel’s slipstream and benefit from their flawless navigation. The Qatari leader has already built up a 12-minute margin over Loeb and, while Martin Prokop managed to limit the damage, the rest of the field were left licking their wounds. Audi’s Stéphane Peterhansel and Carlos Sainz are no longer even in contention (see A crushing blow). The lightweight prototype category saw a new episode of the Seth Quintero Show, but things are still pretty close, with “Chaleco” López just 1?58? behind the young American in the general standings.
The SSV lead went from Pole to Pole as Aron Dom?a?a won the stage and took over the pole position from Marek Gocza?. Blue remains the colour of the week in the truck category, in which title holder Dmitry Sotnikov regained the upper hand over Eduard Nikolaev, but Aleš Loprais placed himself in third place to inject some contrast into the picture.
Performance of the day
His surname may mean “small” in German, but Mason Klein is one of the greats! The Austrians at KTM have already added his name to their watch list in bold. The American, who celebrated his twentieth birthday by winning the Rally2 category in Morocco last October, his first overseas campaign, joined the big league today after finishing fourth, ahead of many big names. Ecstatic at the “awesome” experience he had just gone through, once at the finish line, the rookie even explained how he had noticed some navigation errors by the bikers ahead of him and decided not to follow them in a show of exceptional maturity and audacity. The rider now sitting in fifth place overall has been surfing the deserts back home in California since he was twelve. The desert is his stomping ground. Finishing as the top rookie in 2020 changed his life. His friend, countryman and training buddy, Skyler Howes, was signed by Husqvarna shortly afterwards. He names him his “mentor” without a second thought. Despite his performance today, he revealed a chink in his armour: “I’m definitely not in my element on the dunes”. It’s just a matter of time, kid!
14th in Saturday’s qualifying stage, Stéphane Peterhansel took advantage of his opponents’ tracks to move up the field from the start of the special. Following a promising performance at the first checkpoint, the special came to a catastrophic end at km 153 for Monsieur Dakar, who smashed up the rear of his Audi RS Q e-tron. Even if the Frenchman does not call it quits, a 15th Dakar title is off the cards this year.
Audi received not one, but two crushing blows, as Carlos Sainz lost over two hours trying to find his bearings near km 250. “El Matador” plummeted to 32nd place overall and seems no more likely than his teammate to win the Dakar again this season.
Stat of the day: 15
Third in the SSV standings and winner of a stage last year, Aron Dom?a?a climbed back on top of the podium at the end of stage 1B of the 44th Dakar. As well as claiming his third career win in the most prestigious rally raid on Earth, the Can-Am driver pulled level with ?ukasz ?askawiec as the joint-second most prolific Polish Dakar stage winner, for a total of 15 Polish victories. Quad rider Rafa? Sonik (6 stages), the only Polish Dakar champion to date, tops the record table. Krzysztof Ho?owczyc (1), who finished on the bottom step of the car podium in 2015, is also a member of this select group.
Nasser Al-Attiyah has an insatiable appetite in winter as in summer. His competitive spirit has catapulted him to five victories in the World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies (2008, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2021), of which he is the joint record holder with Jean-Louis Schlesser. He is tackling the FIA World Rally-Raid Championship with the same panache. In Ha’il, he became the first competitor to score points in the competition. His tally of 5 points give him a razor-thin margin on Sébastien Loeb. At the same time, history may remember that two Argentinian racers, both of which are making their Dakar comeback in the first year of the W2RC after four years on the sidelines, are also among the first point scorers: Lucio Álvarez, with 3, and Sebastián Halpern, with 1.
The France-Spain derby is under way! The two most numerous contingents in the Dakar Classic, with 44 French vehicles and 37 from the other side of the Pyrenees, are firmly ensconced in the top 10 and tied 1 for 1 after the first stage. Xavier Pina Garnatcha and Sergi Giralt Valero’s HDJ 80, one of 41 in the field, which opened their account in Ha’il, with the same points as the French Panagiotis couple’s Protruck, which conquered the first half of the stage between Jeddah and Ha’il yesterday. Stéphane Lamarre, tenth in the inaugural edition of the Dakar Classic, let his Porsche 911 East Africa’s acceleration do the talking by entering the repair area. He climbed from sixth to third place, on the same points as another French couple in a Protruck, the Galpins, racing for Team FJ, the importer of Nascar to Europe, in fourth place. Also tied on points, but in fifth place, their compatriots Jean-Michel Gayte and Maxime Vial are ready to pounce in their Mitsubishi Pajero. Follow the return leg on the Saudi sand tomorrow!
Quote of the day
Sébastien Loeb: “Everything turned out fine”
Loeb’s wide tyres did not save him from two punctures, but he put in a solid performance in second place.
“It really wasn’t simple, we messed up and started with two punctures before the neutralisation. There was no room for error in the second part. Then Nasser caught up with us, I was keeping it cool behind him. It was a bit easier with fewer rocks, so I thought we could keep going at a high pace and we made it to the finish in much better shape than at the neutralisation. Both Nasser and Matthieu are strong. You can see it from behind them….”