SAN JUAN DE MARCONA, PERU
Stage 7 of the world’s toughest automotive race, the Dakar Rally, promised to be the harshest of the 2019 edition – and it certainly didn’t disappoint. The Dakar truly bared its teeth with a 323 km-long test that saw MINI’s Stephane Peterhansel (France) close the gap to Toyota Gazoo Racing SA’s Nasser Al Attiyah and Mathieu Baumel by 11:58.
Despite the Frenchman’s victory on Stage 7, Al Attiya/Baumel still lead the rally in the overall standings, and have a buffer of 29:16 over Peterhansel. Nani Roma (Spain), in another MINI, is in third, 37:59 behind the Toyota Hilux crews. Sebastien Loeb, who had been on a charge over the last three stages, lost significant time due to electric problems in his Peugeot today, dropping down to fourth place in the standings as a result.
“It was a really difficult one today,” said Al Attiyah after completing Stage 7. “We started the day as the second car on the road, but then Sebastien (Loeb) lost time early on, and we had to open the road for most of the stage.”
This allowed the MINI brigade to catch up with the Toyota Hilux mid-way through the stage, and Al Attiyah planned to follow them through the dune section in order to help with his own navigation.
“But then the wind came up and made it almost impossible to see in the fesh-fesh, so we lost more time towards the end of the stage,” concluded the Qatari star. “Even so, we are pleased to still be leading the rally, and I’d rather go into the last three stages 30 minutes ahead than 30 minutes behind.”
Stage 7 was also a good one for Giniel de Villiers and German navigator Dirk von Zitzewitz. The 2009 winners posted the 6th-fastest time on the day, despite losing time due to the poor visibility in the soft dunes. They are now in the perfect position to support Al Attiyah/Baumel, who went fourth-fastest on Stage 7.
“Our starting position for tomorrow puts us two cars behind Nasser – just 6 minutes in real time. So, if Nasser runs into any difficulties, which we really hope he doesn’t, we’ll be on site very quickly to support our teammate,” said De Villiers from the bivouac at San Juan de Marcona. “With that said, tomorrow’s starting order is a slightly confusing affair, but even so we won’t be far behind Nasser and Mathieu on the stage.”
Stage 8 will see a mixed start, with the Top 10 motorcycles, Top 10 cars and Top 5 trucks all going off in order of the times they set during Stage 7. This means that stage winner, Stephane Peterhansel, will have a number of motorcycles going off before and after him.
“On the one hand this can aid Stephane, because the bikes are sure to be quick in the dunes, and they’ll lay tracks that could help the MINI driver,” explained Toyota Gazoo Racing SA Team Principal, Glyn Hall. “But at the same time, Stephane will know that he has to push if he wants any chance of catching Nasser, and with the dust from the bikes obscuring his view, his prospects could become rather mixed.”
Dutch driver Bernhard ten Brinke and French navigator, Xavier Panseri, also put in a strong performance on Stage 7 of Dakar 2019. The pair initially started strong, but lost time after getting stuck in a ditch that wasn’t clearly defined in the roadbook. They used the hydraulic jacks in their Toyota Hilux to lift the car, but because of the shape of the ditch, they had to place some of the spare tyres underneath the jack to increase the height.
“It was a bit of a mini adventure,” said Ten Brinke after completing the stage. “But unfortunately, it cost us five or six minutes, on a day that we were posting top five times throughout the stage.”
In the end the Toyota Hilux crew posted the 9th-fastest time on the day, 25:45 adrift of stage winner Peterhansel.
“Their overall time isn’t really influenced by the time today – they are still running in 9th place in the standings,” said Hall. “The important thing is that they are within striking distance to help Nasser and Mathieu if need be, and having them start in 9th tomorrow can only be beneficial to the team.”
Stage 8 will see the crews return to the area around Pisco, on the Pacific coast, via a special stage of 360 km and a liaison of 215 km. As with every stage so far, there will be dunes and sand, with some dry rio beds in between.
“Today we saw Nasser make 1,590 gear changes during his 04:11:58 of racing. To put things in perspective, our total race time so far is 25:13:30 – not far off the total time for Dakar 2017,” concluded Hall. “So, Dakar 2019 is clearly no walk in the park. This is a real tough race, with hair on its chest. And at the moment, we’re in the lead.”
Dakar 2019 has three more stages to go, and will visit the Peruvian town of Pisco for two days before heading northwards to Lima, where the race draws to a close on January 17th.