The day that racing resumed also coincided with a new geographical direction. The Dakar competitors are set to tackle the southeast quarter of Saudi Arabia, with the dunes of the Empty Quarter in their sights, which are likely to be determining in the outcome of the 2023 edition. In the meantime, the riders, drivers and crews had not totally left behind them the zone recently drenched by rain but did battle among dunes that were more accessible … though only if they showed them the necessary respect! Two major players who were caught out were Joan Barreda and Carlos Sainz, both injured, but fortunately not seriously, at the very start of the stage. For the remaining fighters, it was necessary to deal with complex navigation choices and steering between wadis that were sometimes abundantly filled. This sort of terrain was perfectly suited to Luciano Benavides in the bike race and Sébastien Loeb, the two quickest men over the 359 km of the day’s special.
The Dakar bikers are playing with the nerves of aficionados, who are witnessing both twists and turns as well as a totally undecided battle as the race enters its most promising sequence in terms of suspense. Naturally, it was reluctantly Joan Barreda who brought about a major change among the pretenders, losing this status due to a nasty fall (see a crushing blow). Another major player was not far from suffering the same fate but despite two crashes and the loss of his roadbook, the time lost by Mason Klein does not exclude him from the reckoning. As for the day’s beneficiaries, Luciano Benavides was the best performer and became the first double stage winner in the category this year, while his Husqvarna team-mate Skyler Howes hung on to the lead in the general rankings. The American is withstanding the attacks, but is starting to feel Toby Price breathing down his neck. The Australian rider who was the heir to the Despres-Coma era when he triumphed for the first time in 2016 has breathed new hope into his chances, sitting only three seconds behind Howes in the race hierarchy, while another former winner, Kevin Benavides, is also in the position of challenger ready to pounce, in 3rd place 5’09’’ behind. It will again be complicated for Adrien Van Beveren to aim for the title, but not totally unreasonable in view of the difficulty of the four stages to come, given the 12 minutes he needs to make up on the rally’s summit. For Nasser Al Attiyah, each day that passes brings him a little closer to a fifth triumph, even though he rightly rejects the idea that it is already in the bag. The wise elder of the desert never takes delight in his colleagues’ misfortunes but has seen a weakening of the threat posed by Henk Lategan, the day’s loser in the lottery of mechanical problems. Carlos Sainz is no longer a threat, but kept the Spanish press on tenterhooks, hanging on his hesitations between a check-up at the hospital in Riyadh or returning to the seat of his Audi RS Q e-tron E2 whose front end he violently planted into the sand between two dunes after 6 kilometres of racing. In total, Nasser is well ahead with a lead of 1 hour and 21 minutes over Lucas Moraes, while keeping a watchful eye on Sébastien Loeb, who returns to the provisional podium following his third stage victory of the year, ahead of two of his team-mates, no less (see performance of the day). While Vaidotas Zala came within 3 minutes of winning the stage, Lithuania was worthily represented in the quad category, with a victory by Laisvydas Kancius, the second of his career on the Dakar, but not one that will worry Alexandre Giroud at the summit of the hierarchy. In the T3 race, Argentinean David Zille enjoyed the delight of victory, but only by 2 seconds ahead of Guillaume de Mevius. The Belgian would have been only too happy with the win, but is especially interested in his duel with Austin Jones, who is second in the general rankings, trailing by 12’43’’. In the T4 category, the match between Rokas Baciuška and Eryk Goczał becomes more intense with each day, as the young 18-year-old Pole picked up a third stage win, regaining 46’’ which could prove to be decisive. The two young drivers are only separated by 5 minutes. In the truck race, the misfortunes of Martin van den Brink and Martin Macík, bogged down for at least forty minutes, worked out well for Aleš Loprais at the top of the general rankings, but also Janus Van Kasteren, who won his second special and finds himself 2nd in the category, almost 27 minutes behind the Czech leader.
PERFORMANCE OF THE DAY
Good news has not been so frequent for the Prodrive team, but today they struck a big blow on the stage by putting the three remaining Hunters in the race on the podium of the day’s special, which is a first in the team’s youthful history. The day began with a slight scare for Sébastien Loeb, who struggled to start his car just before commencing the special. This delay in ignition cost him a penalty of 2’10’’ (only applied to the general rankings) but did not prevent him from picking up his 3rd special of the year. The leading hunter on the Dakar regained 11 minutes on Nasser Al Attiyah and climbed up a notch in the rally hierarchy, to 3rd place where he lies 1 hour and 43 minutes behind the favourite for the title. Just below him in the rankings, Vaidotas Zala came up short for the second time this year in his quest for a stage win. The trio was completed by another speedster who is only aiming for wins on specials: at the finishing line, Guerlain Chicherit no doubt regretted following the mistaken path of Mathieu Baumel, his co-pilot when he debuted, as well as a puncture he later suffered. The winner of the Rallye du Maroc finished in the top 5 for the 6th time this year.
A CRUSHING BLOW
Joan Barreda had a clear message on the rear of his helmet when enrolling for his 13th Dakar as he prepares to hit the 40-year mark. “Last Shot” was what the pursuers of “Bang Bang” could read, a mix of “last dance” and his reputation as a sharp-shooting collector of 29 stage wins on the Dakar. The last bounty of this stage hunter was still fresh, namely the special on stage 4 on the first loop around Ha’il. The Spaniard was within four victories of the records held by Peterhansel and Despres. The very next day, BB bit the dust at the end of the special, another speciality of the Honda rider. Taking part in his own team supported by Monster Energy and behind the handlebars of a HRC machine, up to that point he had ridden a sensible race, between 4th and 8th place in the general rankings since January 1st. With the fall, once again, at the start of today’s special, Barreda has likely holstered his gun for good. It is the sixth time that “Bang Bang” has exited the rally prematurely. His best result on the Dakar will surely be the 5th places obtained in both 2017 and 2022. In 1966, Cher released her 2nd single “Bang Bang” on the US charts, made famous by a cover version sung by Sinatra, which fits like a glove to the career of the likeable Spaniard who fortunately escaped largely unscathed from his spectacular tumble: “Bang bang, I hit the ground, Bang bang, that awful sound, Bang bang, my baby shot me down”.
STAT OF THE DAY: 2
359 km of special were on the programme of stage 9 today. David Zille proved himself to be the most agile against the clock. The Argentinean picked up his first success on the Dakar, but this victory was a struggle right until the very end. Guillaume de Mevius, Mitch Guthrie and Dania Akeel all held the lead, but in the end it was Zille who had the last word by pipping de Mevius at the post by just two seconds. It took Zille merely 3 hours and 38 minutes to reach the finishing line, which equals an average speed of a little less than 100 kmph all along the route. In terms of a special, it is infinitesimal. To get a better idea, the day’s victory was decided by about 55 metres, which is not much more than a grain of sand in racing terms…
W2RC: LOEB CONTINUES TO HUNT
The remake of W2RC season 1 between Loeb and Al Attiyah is taking place near Haradh! The Frenchman returned to 2nd in the general classification today and not without panache, as he picked up a 3rd stage victory. His Qatari rival has admittedly won just as many, but the Toyota driver only took 4th place today among the drivers enrolled in the world championship. At the end of the first leg, every point gained on the specials by finishing in the top five of the day could allow the runner-up to stay in contact with the Toyota Gazoo Racing driver if the latter stays on the top step until Dammam. This same strategy allowed Loeb to leave the Dakar in 2022 in 2nd position only one point behind the Qatari. The script is familiar, but the scenery will change tomorrow, as Al Attiyah is repeating to anyone willing to listen that he will be at home in the Empty Quarter.
THE MAKINGS OF A CLASSIC
One day is very much like another at the top of the regularity rankings in the Dakar Classic. The Spanish couple who finished 106th last year behind the wheel of a Panda and who returned for their second attempt with a HDJ 80 have not made the slightest mistake. They are like lone rangers at the opposite end of the scale from the 9 teams ranked last on equal points. This is not happening by chance, because they have all accumulated the maximum number of penalties. For them, the important thing is not to win, but to take part and sometimes in a totally assumed manner. Such is the case for crew number 725 made up of the Dutch couple named Kamp and their CX. It is in tribute to the first two-wheel drive car to finish the Dakar in 1981 that they have entered in this Citroën coupé, one used by the Presidents of the French Republic at the time, but also by Thierry Sabine when carrying out reconnoitring in 1979 for the 2nd Paris-Dakar. At the time, the French constructor was a partner of this motorsport adventure. The AMSAM doctors, who were equipped with ten Meharis in 1980, remember this more than anyone else, since they had covered the entire route!