Dakar: Sanders out, Cornejo back in the game and Loeb turns into a man on a mission at Stage 7

Dakar: Sanders out, Cornejo back in the game and Loeb turns into a man on a mission at Stage 7

Al Dawadimi, January 9, 2022- David Castera had warned that stages 7 and 8 would be huge. The competitors tackled over 400 km of racing today and face a similar distance tomorrow.

However, the Dakar “starts when you wake up and ends when you go to bed”, as biker Lorenzo Santolino put it at the end of the special. Stage 6 winner Daniel Sanders has definitely learnt this lesson after crashing out of the race 7 km into the liaison this morning, when he was still riding on the tarmac of Riyadh (see A crushing blow). The GasGas biker, who was due to open the 402 km timed sector, did not join the rest of the field in its westward trek from the capital to Ad-Dawadimi, the geographic centre of the Kingdom, located 300 km from the rest day bivouac on the premises of one of the oldest palaces in the realm.

This part of Riyadh hosted the race for the very first time, first on the sandy terrain that made up a third of the special on the border with the neighbouring Al-Qassim Province, followed by a turn due south towards the bivouac. Combined with the 299 km liaison, the stage marking the start of the second week of the 44th Dakar came out to over 700 km.

Outlines

The stage after a rest day can be tough.

This one knocked Daniel Sanders out from the get-go (see “A crushing blow”) while reinvigorating Ignacio Cornejo, who burst back onto the scene with his navigational acumen to earn Honda its third special in this Dakar, his career fourth. However, the time gained is far from enough to put him back in contention for the title that seemed so close last year, not least because the race in front of him is still wide open. The big winner of the day was Adrien Van Beveren, who was rewarded for his consistency with a new spell in the overall lead. Last time he occupied this position was four years ago, when he ended up crashing out of the race in stage 10. The Yamaha rider has failed to finish the Dakar ever since. Five stages stand between the Frenchman and glory. He holds a margin of 5?12? on the restrained yet formidable Matthias Walkner. No fewer than seven bikers lie within 10 minutes of the leader. One of them, Kevin Benavides, is back on the provisional podium (third) thanks to his runner-up finish in today’s special, while Sherco’s Lorenzo Santolino fought gallantly amid the big favourites and even moved up one spot (fifth).

The new boss of the quad race, Alexandre Giroud, could afford to let Marcelo Medeiros slip away as the Brazilian cruised to his second career Dakar stage win.

Compared with VBA, Nasser Al-Attiyah has enjoyed a much wider margin at the top of the car table since the opening special. Try as he might to turn the tables on his rival, Sébastien Loeb is still 45 minutes behind the Qatari, although he did net his 17th stage win and blasted past Yazeed Al-Rajhi in the general standings without looking back.

In the T3 race, Seth Quintero almost let the stage slip away due to a series of navigation errors that played into the hands of his teammate Cristina Gutiérrez, but he snatched victory from the jaws of defeat to make it seven in this edition. Even a streak as impressive as this one cannot stop the relentless march of Can-Am’s “Chaleco” López, still comfortably in the lead with 1h20 to spare over his South Racing stablemate Sebastian Eriksson.

In contrast, the SSV competition was turned on its head as Rodrigo Luppi de Oliveira slumped down the standings as a result of a mechanical less than 100 kilometres into the special. Austin Jones is now in the hot seat.

Meanwhile, the Poles continue to rack up one stage win after another. Today was Aron Dom?a?a’s turn to stand on top of the podium, his second triumph in this year’s Dakar.

Finally, there is no room for envy at Kamaz as Anton Shibalov picked up his first stage win of the season, with Dmitry Sotnikov in command of the overall.

Performance of the day
The Polish posse continues to turn in a spectacular collective performance in the SSV category. Aron Dom?a?a’s second stage win in the 2022 Dakar extended an almost unbroken run of victories for Poland and brought him level with compatriot Micha? Gocza?, who in turn is one triumph shy of his older brother Marek’s tally. Only Rodrigo Luppi de Oliveira, victorious in stage 5, has managed to deny the Poles so far.

The new race leader, Austin Jones, is not the only one who benefited from the Brazilian’s off day. The American will have to keep a close eye on Micha? Gocza?, who has slashed his deficit to the South Racing driver to just 5?11? as he surges up the standings. Fourth in 2021, the voracious Pole could well close the gap in the coming days.
Crushing blow
We were watching his career with great interest. As soon as he wrapped up the 2021 edition with top rookie honours in fourth place overall, Daniel Sanders faced a barrage of gushing comparisons with his older compatriot Toby Price, who had finished third in his debut in 2015 before going on to win the next edition. Australia’s next big star, dispatched to GasGas by KTM to bolster its Spanish cousins, kicked off the 2022 rally with an auspicious performance. “Chucky” picked up three stage wins and gave up a fourth en route to completing the first week in third place in the general standings, a mere 5?35? behind his teammate and overall leader Sam Sunderland.

It barely even registered as a concern when the Australian explained how he had face-planted on his navigation instruments, an episode that caused his lower lip to double in size four days ago. Yet the Victorian now knows that danger lurks around every corner in the Dakar.

Sanders was heading to the start of the special, in which he was due to open the road, when he hit a pavement right after exiting Riyadh, a mere 10 kilometres into the liaison! A fractured left elbow put paid to his hopes and dreams of shining in the rest of the Dakar. As collateral damage, GasGas, which seemed poised to finish the first round of the FIM Constructor Championship at the top of the leader board, has also seen its prospects blighted, although Sunderland continues to fly the bright-red flag for the maker.

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