Jan 10, 2022-
The 44th edition of the Dakar has sand as a major theme and the eighth stage was one of its most perfect examples. The 830 kilometres to be covered during the day led the caravan due south between Al Dawadimi and Wadi Ad Dawasir. It was again in the heart of the kingdom and in the Province of Riyadh that a second consecutive special measuring almost four-hundred kilometres awaited the competitors. The menu consisted of 24% of the route in the dunes, which is the highest proportion since the beginning of the rally. Only the penultimate stage will have as large a percentage in store, which bodes well for those who like the suspense to be kept going until the day before the finish. Firstly, however, the day’s special commenced with the desertic Nafud as Surrah and its copious dunes, which some competitors had to attempt several times before conquering their summits, sometimes at altitudes of more than 1000 metres.
This required significant skill for crossing the dunes, in which Audi driver Mattias Ekström remained cautious on his first experience of the Dakar, whilst “Mister Dakar” ripped off his bonnet after smashing down on one of the sandy monsters. This demanding first part against the clock then gave way to a complete change in scenery. Rocks and canyons were the watchwords in a mineral labyrinth liable to throw up traps into which fell the openers, namely Cornejo – by no means a novice in navigation – and Barreda. All the symbolic elements of the Dakar were present: distance, dunes and navigation.
The tension is mounting as the closing stages approach, especially in the close fought battle in the bike category. Tipped off the throne on top of the general rankings by Adrien Van Beveren, Sam Sunderland did not let his brother-in-law enjoy this privilege for more than a day. The winner of the Dakar in 2017 set out to recapture the lead and achieved the day’s best time to regain the summit of the race’s hierarchy, whilst the French Yamaha rider, hindered by a broken automatic scroller on his roadbook, also saw Austrian Matthias Walkner overtake him. In 3rd position, 4’43’’ behind Sunderland, Adrien Van Beveren can still aim high, but must also keep an eye on his rear-view mirrors, in which the Honda riders will look very threatening, particularly Pablo Quintanilla who is only 47’’ behind. There is a clearer horizon in the quad category because Alexandre Giroud has pushed Pablo Copetti back to more than half an hour behind him by winning his second special of the year.
Nasser Al-Attiyah’s breathing space is even more comfortable, but he might now be sleeping slightly less easily. Firstly, because his nearest pursuer is called Sébastien Loeb, who is the kind of man who does not give up. Even when driving conservatively after a puncture and then a lost spare wheel (see “Quote of the day”), the Frenchman still managed to regain seven minutes on the leader. Secondly, the Qatari is not safe from a mishap himself, as illustrated today when he received a major fright due to a broken rear transmission forcing him to finish the stage with two-wheel drive. This is a timely warning to the race leader and he will no doubt have in mind that the Audis will make life much more difficult for him next year. The three RS Q e-tron can no longer bother him in the general rankings but were driven into three of the top four places on the day’s stage, led by Mattias Ekström (see “Performance of the day”).
Similar worries to Al-Attiyah’s could trouble “Chaleco” López, who is streets ahead of the rest in the race for victory among the T3s (with a lead of 1 hour and 20 minutes over Sebastian Eriksson) but remains unperturbed by Seth Quintero gobbling up most of the specials on the Dakar 2022: eight out of nine so far, with the record in his sights! There is everything left to play for in the SSV category, where another American is dominating. However, Austin Jones only possesses a lead of 6’38’’ over his South Racing team-mate Gerard Farrés, and barely a quarter of an hour over the youngest of the Gocza? brothers, namely Micha?. The eldest brother, Marek, is tasking himself with hoovering up the stage victories and won for the fourth time this year today. In the truck race, the Kamaz team took the top four places. With three stage successes to his name, Dmitry Sotnikov has extended his lead at the top of the general rankings to 11’25’’ ahead of Eduard Nikolaev.
Performance of the day
Four days after Henk Lategan’s consecration, the Dakar has welcomed another stage winner to its roll of honour and the 93rd in the race’s history. Before starting the 2022 edition, Mattias Ekström, like his rival at Toyota, had only experienced the Dakar once previously, which he also prematurely exited before the final finishing line. However, the comparison ends there because the Swedish driver first tried his hand at the T3 category, whilst the South African was already driving a Toyota Hilux. What’s more, in Wadi Ad Dawasir, Ekström’s success is the symbol of a technological revolution. The RS Q e-tron designed by Audi had already displayed its performance capabilities when driven to triumph by stage success collector Carlos Sainz on special number 3. Today, the former rally-cross world champion (in 2016) triumphed with the honour of leading a high-level collective performance as the Dakar came very close to celebrating a 100% Audi podium, with Peterhansel finishing 2nd and Sébastien Loeb depriving Sainz of 3rd place by just three seconds. Beyond the anecdotal, team boss Sven Quandt may instruct Mattias Ekström to dial back the desire to hunt success on the specials, bearing in mind that the Swede is the best placed representative of the four-ringed brand. Currently 11th in the general rankings, he is only nine minutes outside the top 10, which is a fine objective for the first outing of a 4×4 with a hybrid engine on the Dakar.
During the 221 edition, she caused a sensation by becoming the first woman to win a stage on the Dakar since Jutta Kleinschmidt in 2005. Cristina Gutiérrez confirmed her prowess later in that year by winning the T3 rally-raid world cup. As a result, she logically featured among the favourites at the start of the rally on 1st January, alongside her faithful co-pilot François Cazalet. Immediately at the forefront of the race, she soon came unstuck on stage 3 due to a technical problem that cost her 1 hour and 30 minutes. She was not rattled though – it would take more than that to put her off. After two fourth place finishes on the following brace of specials, Gutiérrez returned to the podium on stages 6 and 7 in second place both times. These results even allowed her to commence the day in third position in the general rankings, admittedly two hours behind the leader, but with genuine hopes of the overall top 3… However, another mechanical problem put paid to these ambitions after 50 km of the day’s special. The Red Bull duo managed to find a solution and resume the race, but at a big cost: 3 hours trickled away into the sand. The Spaniard and the Frenchman can most probably kiss their hopes of a final podium finish goodbye, but in the Dakar, it is never over until it really is over… After all, they are only 2 hours from the third step on the podium, now occupied by another Franco-Spanish duo, Fernando Alvarez-Xavier Panseri, and today’s stage has shown that all it needs is one special to undo all the good work…