Dakar Rally : Mitsubishi Motors - Leg 4
Team Repsol Mitsubishi Ralliart maintained the pressure on their main rivals after a punishing 405km special stage through the heart of Morocco between Er Rachidia and Ouarzazate on Tuesday.
Team drivers Joan Roma, Hiroshi
Masuoka and Luc Alphand now hold fourth, fifth and sixth in the overall standings, although team mate Stéphane Peterhansel lost a potential stage win with minor clutch problems and slipped to ninth overall.
Roma and co-driver Lucas Cruz began the day in seventh place and were running fourth through PC2, before reaching the stage finish in third position behind stage winner Jean-Louis Schlesser and rally leader Carlos Sainz. The Spaniards duly climbed the leaderboard into fourth place.
"Every day is different and it was not so bad for me today," said Roma. "There was a lot of dust. I was behind Schlesser and we had some problems finding the way, but it is okay, nothing too serious. Tomorrow's stage will not be easy through the mountains. For me, the difficult stages start on Thursday. It is important not to make any mistakes."
Peterhansel and Jean-Paul Cottret began the stage third on the track behind rivals Sainz and Giniel de Villiers, but the French duo were in sparkling form over familiar terrain and were the first car to reach the second passage control in just over three hours, 8m 19s ahead of Sainz - the overnight rally leader - although Schlesser was in the fastest car at that point.
The twice former winners looked set for a top stage finish and the outright rally lead, until they got stuck in soft sand in a series of tricky sand dunes. After extricating the car from the sand they experienced clutch problems and were forced to stop and make emergency repairs. A clutch replacement was carried out swiftly and the crew dropped a total of 25 minutes, but slipped from fourth to ninth in the overall standings.
"I never really seem to have much luck in Morocco," said Peterhansel.
"And I don't know why…At the beginning it was a good stage, but we got stuck 300 metres from the end of some small dunes, three times, and we burned out the clutch. Two kilometres later we decided to change the clutch and this cost us around 25 minutes. Before that I passed Carlos (Sainz) when he lost his way and Giniel - when we stopped to clean some debris the front of his car - so I know that we have the pace and the car to beat our rivals in this race. The design of our clutch is so important. I remember last year, when Carlos Sainz burned his clutch, it took three or four hours to change it and it only took Jean-Paul and I 25 minutes today. Things like this make a major difference on an event like the Dakar."
MMSP's Technical Director Thierry Viardot explained why it is much quicker for a Mitsubishi team member to change a damaged clutch than a rival team. "On a normal car the clutch is between the engine and the gearbox, but in the Mitsubishi Evolution the clutch is designed outside the gearbox so that it can be changed quickly. Its quick-fit shape is designed for days like today. Without this technology you lose your chance of taking a possible victory."
Hiroshi Masuoka and Pascal Maimon were running sixth on the stage at PC2 and finished the section in fifth place in a third Mitsubishi Pajero/Montero Evolution. The Japanese duly moved up to fifth overall, despite sustaining two flat tires.
"Two punctures today, one about 90km from the start and one near the finish," said Masuoka. "It was a difficult stage. There were two moments when I had big landings over jumps. I needed to be careful. We stopped to change the first tire and 'Nani' and Schlesser came passed. Then they lost their way and we passed them again. It was quite funny."
Luc Alphand and Gilles Picard were fifth through PC2 and arrived at the stage finish in seventh position. The defending champions now hold sixth place in the general classification.
"It was more difficult than we thought today," said Alphand. "The dunes at Merzouga are easier than they used to be, but there was some camel grass, more sand dunes and some big holes on the stage. With the navigation and the fesh-fesh, it was a varied and difficult stage. We did not have a clean run. I hit a rock and we had a puncture and we had another small navigation problem, so it was not possible to be clean today. The bikes made a good path through the dunes, but the tracks before were more difficult. Tomorrow, we need to make no mistakes. We are suffering at the moment, but the positive is no problems at all with the car."
Today's special offered a fine balance of fast tracks, rocky roads and sand dunes and was a far cry from the chilly night most of Team Repsol Mitsubishi Ralliart had spent at the Er Rachidia bivouac, where external temperatures plunged to just above zero.
"We had some ups and downs today, but that is the nature of the Dakar," said MMSP's Managing and Sporting Director Dominique Serieys. "Stéphane did a very good job to change the clutch so quickly. It was not so bad. We have three cars in close contention and we will continue the same way. This is a long race. When we reach Mauritania, we are not talking about losing five or 10 minutes, we are talking about losing many more minutes with problems. Then we will see what happens."
"We had good news early this morning and then I heard about Stéphane's problems so it was a mixed day," said MMSP President Isao Torii. "Our rivals have improved since last year, but I still feel that we have the advantage on twisty roads and with our experience. I have no negative feelings at the moment. We have plenty of hard stages to make up the time."
Thailand's Mana Pornsiriched and French co-driver Jean Brucy began the second African stage in 52nd overall and were the 30th quickest crew through the first passage control on today's 405km stage in their Mitsubishi L200 Triton. They eventually reached the finish in 44th place and climbed up the leaderboard to 42nd place.
"I got stuck on two occasions in the sand today, but I did not panic and I reached the finish without a big time delay," said Pornsiriched. "I am gaining more experience all the time and that is important."
China's Lui Bin and French co-driver Serge Henninot began this morning's special into Ouarzazate in 44th position in the overall classification and were running 40th through the first passage control in their Mitsubishi Pajero/Montero. They were delayed through the closing kilometres and eventually finished the stage in 66th position to hold 52nd overall.
"I started well today and had no problems in the sand dunes," said Lui Bin. "But, unfortunately, I broke the rear suspension at 250km and we had to stop and change some parts and that cost us about 40 minutes. It was a shame to break the suspension, because it would have been a good day."
Japan's Yoshio Ikemachi now holds 30th position in the overall standings after reaching the stage finish in 29th place. "I am enjoying the rally very much," said the Japanese. "Today we came upon the first dunes. I deflated my tyres to one bar pressure and I was okay. I passed several cars stuck in the sand, but it was good experience for me before we reach Mauritania. I will drive carefully into Tan Tan."
Russian Tibau Team driver Boris Bukatov rolled his Mitsubishi Pajero/Montero before the first passage control in today's stage after leaving the start in 126th position.
Tomorrow (Wednesday) marks the final special stage in Morocco and a punishing 768km section through the heart of the country from Ouarzazate to the southerly coastal town of Tan Tan. A 164km liaison takes teams to the start of the 325km special stage, before a tiring 279km liaison to Tan Tan.
The region is well known to regular competitors on the Dakar and Morocco rallies, but the Dakar organizers, the ASO, insist that this year's special offers a balance of sinuous tracks through the Anti-Atlas mountain range and fast stony terrain to a finish to the east of Bouizakarne.