The bikers and quad riders took the shortest route from Riyadh to Al Duwadimi, a road section nearly 500 kilometres long, with no rain this time round. Meanwhile, a bit further south, the car and truck drivers went head to head in a special tailored to the masters of trajectories and changes of pace. The wily desert foxes came out on top on a course that alternated from sand to stones and from canyons to wadis. For once, the co-drivers were left with the burden of solving the navigation conundrum from scratch, without the clues left by the bikers. The scenario played into the hands of the lightning-fast Yazeed Al Rajhi, who posted the fastest time after starting from far back.
Despite having to wake up in the wee hours, at 4 am, the race leader’s mind was crisp and clear as he exited the bivouac in Riyadh this morning. Without a care in the world other than picking the right track for today’s Instagram story, Nasser Al Attiyah made his way to the start of the special confident in the knowledge that his lead over Henk Lategan in the general standings is as robust as Harry Potter’s shield charm. However, the Qatari is not known for wasting time, and today he made the most of his position as the actual opener of the race, without the motorbikes as a reference, to have his co-driver, Mathieu Baumel, revisit Navigation 101. “Caution” was the word of the day for Al Attiyah, who had no problem conceding 20-odd minutes to his teammate Yazeed Al Rajhi. The Saudi was the fastest among three energetic drivers who are no longer in contention for the general classification. Al Rajhi’s fourth career special, the third on home turf, was won by his incredible driving skills, which had more time to shine through due to his late starting position (39th). His two closest pursuers, Vaidotas Žala and Guerlain Chicherit, did not have this advantage, but this did not stop them from pushing their Hunters to the limit to help the BRX clan lick its wounds. Next came a trio of South African drivers who confirmed the ongoing shift in the balance of power in the category (see Performance of the day), while Mattias Ekström’s bad luck dashed Audi’s last hopes of finishing high. The fight for the title is much closer in the T3 category, in which the two top-ranked drivers were acutely aware of the need to defend their interests on what was a fiendish course. As a result, Guillaume de Mévius and Austin Jones marked each other far behind the winner of the special, Mitch Guthrie. The Belgian remains in control of the race, eight minutes ahead of the American. On the other hand, the SSV category saw a change at the top as Rodrigo Luppi de Oliveira (see A crushing blow) surrendered the lead to Rokas Baciuška, who claimed his third special of the year. Goczał Senior (Marek) and Junior (Eryk) remain within striking distance, less than seven minutes behind the world champion. Finally, Janus van Kasteren added his name to the list of stage winners in the truck category while Aleš Loprais remained perched at the top of the leader board.
PERFORMANCE OF THE DAY
South Africa has a special history with the Dakar. In 1992, Cape Town hosted the finale of an extraordinary trans-African course —the one that Thierry Sabine had originally dreamt about before settling for a finish in Dakar. A biker by the name of Alfie Cox burst onto the stage in 1999 and went on to claim three podium places, including second place in 2002. The following year saw Giniel de Villiers sign up for the car category. The 2009 Dakar champion, now racing in his 20th Dakar, has finished in the top 10 every time bar one, inspiring a new generation of competitors and constructors. Today, Giniel De Villiers, Henk Lategan (both Toyota Gazoo Racing) and Brian Baragwanath (Century buggy) came in fourth through sixth in their cars made in Africa. Henk Lategan has finished in the top 6 in the last four stages of his third Dakar, positioning him as the main threat to Nasser Al Attiyah in the overall standings. South Africa has been the flavour of the week in the Dakar, with three crews in the top 10 and three 100% “Saffa” cars on the provisional podium after today’s special.
A CRUSHING BLOW
Rodrigo Luppi de Oliveira, now in his second Dakar, has come a long way since he claimed a stage and spent a day in the overall lead back in January 2022. This time round, the Brazilian’s stint at the top of the T4 classification lasted four days. 161 km into the special, a flat tyre and the ensuing complications forced him to stop for 20 minutes or so, after which he continued to drive at a slow pace until the finish of the special, losing a total of 40 minutes to the stage winner and new race leader, Rokas Baciuška. Rodrigo slumped to fifth place, but he is still very much in the running at 20 minutes behind the young Lithuanian. The South Racing driver can also find solace in the solid performance of his 18-year-old son Bruno, who is hot on his heels in sixth place, 1 h 55 down on Baciuška.
FIGURE OF THE DAY: 3
The truck race is experiencing a renaissance after years of unbridled Russian dominance. Unsurprisingly, a multitude of candidates are fighting for the right to inherit the throne, starting with today’s winner, Janus van Kasteren, fifth overall last time. The Dutchman took his maiden win today, increasing the number of first-time victors in this edition to three and heralding the rise of a new generation of juggernauts. Van Kasteren, De Rooy’s protégé, joins Mitchel van den Brink, who recently became the youngest truck stage winner ever at the tender age of 20, and Gert Huzink, who drives a hybrid Renault truck.
W2RC: AL ATTIYAH AND BACIUŠKA SHOW WHO’S BOSS
Nasser Al Attiyah stayed in control of the first round with nearly two hours in hand over Sébastien Loeb, his closest rival in the W2RC, while their motorbike and quad counterparts sat out the stage. In T3, Austin Jones, sixth today, remains ensconced in the lead of the Dakar. In T4, Rodrigo Luppi de Oliveira lost the lead in both the general standings and the championship (see A crushing blow). The reigning champion, Rokas Baciuška, managed to turn the tide and reclaim the top spot in a single stage! Finally, Janus van Kasteren again beat the other participants in the truck category and defended his lead in the championship. Martin Macík is close behind, while the title holder, Kees Koolen, is stuck in the doldrums nearly four hours behind the leader.
THE MAKINGS OF A CLASSIC
A pattern is starting to emerge at the top of the Dakar Classic! The general standings remain mostly unchanged, but a trend is starting to take shape with a double match among friends. The Spaniards of the Moma Raid team Juan Morena and Lidia Ruba, on the one hand, and Carlos Santaolalla and Aran Sol i Juanola, on the other hand, continue to hoover up the top 2 finishes without any changes in the balance of power between the two crews. In the fight for the bottom step of the podium, the Belgian Erik Qvick and his co-driver, Jean-Marie Lurquin, saw Dirk Van Rompuy and Christiaan Michel Goris surge in their rear-view mirror. Crew no. 728 were the big winners of a day on which they dragged themselves back into contention against their compatriots, although they will have to bring their A game to take the fight to the Catalans. Perhaps tomorrow, in one of the regularity tests, where the navigation challenges are said to have the potential to shake up the race. The Spanish school, which places more emphasis on off-road racing than the Belgians, has the edge on paper. Stay tuned for stage 8 tomorrow!
Nasser Al Attiyah: “We had to open the special without any tracks ahead of us”
Nasser Al Attiyah has been staying out of trouble since his opponents knocked themselves out of contention. He now manages his one-hour lead over his pursuer —and teammate— Henk Lategan.
“We had to open the special without any tracks ahead of us. Glen and Séb overtook us. The navigation was tricky and all of a sudden there were three or four cars locked in a duel. The last 20 to 30 kilometres were crazy.”
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