Dakar : X-Raid Team - Leg 5
Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah and Tina Thörner, representing X-raid's Sails Capital Racing Team, set the fourth fastest time on the most difficult special stage of the 2009 Dakar Rally so far and regained the overall lead on Wednesday.
punishing fifth 506km timed section linked the overnight halts of Neuquén and San Rafaël in Argentina and Al-Attiyah overcame the handicap of starting the stage in second position to further establish his credentials as a serious challenger for the overall victory in his BMW X3 CC.
Qatari Al-Attiyah and Swedish co-driver Thörner started the stage behind Spaniard Carlos Sainz and were running third in the stage at the opening passage control at 230km. They maintained a similar position through PC2 and survived the first major dune crossings of the event to record the fourth quickest time, although they suffered minor overheating problems in the tricky dunes.
Giniel de Villiers claimed the fastest time of the day, but an accident for Sainz ensured that the X-raid driver regained the overall lead by a margin of 2m 24s from De Villiers.
"It's great to be leading again, but it could have been so much better today," said Al-Attiyah. "I had to stop in the dunes for about 15 minutes because the engine was overheating and the temperature would not go down.
I tried to unclog the radiator, but it was full of these flowers, not camel grass, just a special type of flower that was stopping the air flow."
Dutchman Peter van Merksteijn and Belgian co-driver Eddy Chevallier held a virtual 16th position through the 230km point, but their car caught fire after the second passage control and the Dutch crew were evacuated to the bivouac with no chance of continuing in the race.
"We stopped to change tyres and then we noticed a smell about 30km further on," admitted Van Merksteijn. "My co-driver looked out of the car and he saw flames from the back end. I activated the fire extinguisher system, but the fire had taken hold and there was nothing we could do."
"Today was a classic example of the ups and downs of the Dakar Rally," said team director Sven Quandt. "Nasser had a small delay, but is leading the rally again, but we lost one car and that is a complete disaster. We can cope with serious mechanical problems. They can be repaired. But when a car catches fire that is too much. It is a shame for Peter and Eddy."
Local hero Orlando Terranova and French co-driver Alain Guehennec held a virtual sixth position through the opening passage control, as the stage began to climb through some small mountains and then finished in a sea of around 60km of treacherous sand dunes. But the Argentine lost around 18 minutes before PC2 and further time in the dunes. He eventually set the 14th fastest time and now holds 11th overall.
"I live in Mendoza city and have been to this area many times," said Terranova. "Every February I take part in a race involving five sports in San Rafaël, including motocross and swimming. But I must admit it was very difficult out there today."
Frenchman Guerlain Chicherit and co-driver Matthieu Baumel climbed from 95th to 53rd overall with the ninth fastest time into Neuquén and were quickly into a top pace on the long stage today, but they slipped back to 10th at the first PC, were classified eighth through PC2 and eventually finished the special in 11th position.
Dutchman René Kuipers and Portuguese co-driver Filipe Palmeiro were classified 22nd through PC1, 19th at PC2 and finished the stage in an excellent 13th position to hold 14th overall.
Despite losing a little time stuck in the fesh-fesh on the run into Neuquén, X-raid Russia's Leonid Novitskiy and Oleg Tyupenkin had climbed from 40th to 28th in the overall standings at the start of the fifth leg. The Russian was 13th at PC1 and up to 10th through PC2, but was delayed on the last part of the stage.
Four hundred and twenty vehicles were classified at the end of the fourth leg, but an unofficial 23 cars, bikes and trucks failed to restart this morning, as the original entry of 530 vehicles was further reduced.
Tomorrow (Thursday) is the last of the special stages on the event's first visit to Argentina and consists of a 76km liaison into a 395km special stage to Argentina's fourth city, Mendoza, overlooked to the west by the Andes mountains.
The city stands 824 metres above sea level in a region famous for its wine industry and is a popular stop-off for tourists interested in climbing, skiing, rafting and hiking pursuits.
The stage heads through the northern Patagonian lakeland and turns north to a finish south of Pareditas. A 154km liaison then takes crews into the overnight halt in Mendoza, with the towering volcanic peak of Tupungatito rising to 6,550 metres in the distance.