Dakar Rally : Mitsubishi Motors - Leg 12
Team Repsol Mitsubishi Ralliart drivers Stéphane Peterhansel and Luc Alphand stayed in firm control of the 29th Dakar Rally, after the 257km special stage between Ayoûn-el-Atroûs in Mauritania and Kayes in north-western Mali on Thursday.
But Alphand and co-driver Gilles Picard managed to reduce Peterhansel's and Jean-Paul Cottret's overall lead to just 6m 29s.
Peterhansel and Cottret began the day in fourth position and were a cautious eighth through the first passage control. They finished the stage in sixth place and maintained a reduced lead in the overall standings.
"The stage was very narrow in places between many small trees and we touched one tree on the right-hand side of the car," said Peterhansel. "But the car was perfect otherwise. The stage offered very tricky navigation. About 50km from the end we lost the track and a little time."
Alphand and Picard were sixth into the stage this morning and the fourth fastest crew through PC1. Despite taking no risks, the defending champions set the third fastest time and managed to reduce their team mates' overall lead to 6m 29s with three stages remaining.
"We started behind Carlos Sainz and he really pushed, so we had a clear track for much of the stage and were able to gain some time," said Alphand. "Now we have to be quiet and intelligent. We had a little navigation problem, about 600 metres the wrong way, but it was the same for several drivers."
Hiroshi Masuoka and Pascal Maimon followed Qatar's Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah into this morning's stage in second position and were under team orders to slow down and wait for team mate Peterhansel and shadow him to the stage finish. Masuoka was 19th at PC1 and reached the stage finish in 19th position, although he duly slipped behind the American Marc Miller into sixth overall.
"I played the waiting game today to make sure that the other team drivers were okay," said Masuoka. "It was difficult to avoid the small trees. It will be very difficult for the trucks running behind us on the stage.
Joan 'Nani' Roma and Lucas Cruz started eighth on the road into Kayes, but were six seconds faster than Carlos Sainz at the first PC and the virtual leaders on the stage. Roma eventually finished fifth on the special, which was won by Sainz from Portugal's Carlos Sousa.
"I was running very well to the first PC," said Roma. "But, after the water, I caught a Mitsubishi and thought it was Luc in the dust. I followed him, but it was Hiroshi. We both took the wrong route and both cars had to turn around. I lost a little time there, but more time following in Hiroshi's dust. There are only about 500km of racing to go, but they will feel very long…"
"It was a good day for us," said MMSP's Managing and Sporting Director Dominique Serieys. "We now have to be very careful over the next three days and keep our concentration. There is a great spirit within our team. I will have a chat tonight with Isao Torii and we will discuss a team strategy. Tomorrow's stage through Black Africa is very narrow and technical and we don't want a fight between our two drivers on the stages. They are professional and will fully understand the situation."
China's Lui Bin and Thai Pornsiriched hold 49th and 68th places in Kayes
China's Lui Bin and French co-driver Serge Henninot began the stage in 46th overall and 28th position on the stage. They were 42nd fastest into Kayes and slipped to 49th place.
"It was okay today, but I think the stage was more tiring than the last two specials in Mauritania," said Bin. "It was more like a jungle. There were some low trees with no tops, just roots and stumps. It was easy to break the suspension. I broke a mirror on the tree, but nothing serious."
Frenchman Dominique Housieaux and co-driver Jean-Michel Polato were the 39th team into today's stage in their Mitsubishi L200 Triton and finished 23rd. They remain the leading Mitsubishi privateers in 19th place. Thailand's Mana Pornsiriched and French co-driver Jean Brucy were classified 24th at the finish of the day's stage and now hold 68th overall.
"The stage today reminded me of a typical special in Thailand," said Pornsiriched. "It was not so difficult, but more of a test for my co-driver and his navigation skills. We hit three tiny trees today. There was no major damage, but just some scratches on the car."
Russian Leonid Novitskiy was 21st on the road this morning, while Brazilian Klever Kolberg began this morning's stage 22nd on the road, behind the Russian. The Brazilian finished the stage in an excellent 20th position and now holds 59th, while the Russian is 21st overall after setting the 15th fastest time.
"The landscape and the scenery in Mali were very beautiful," said Novitskiy. "There were many small baobab trees on the stage and we were very careful. We grazed some gently, but nothing too serious. No problems with the car."
Yaroslav Soloviev was 43rd of the 111 starters to leave Ayoûn-el-Atroûs this morning and finished the stage in 35th place to hold 52nd position.
Tomorrow (Friday) is the penultimate of the longer Dakar Rally stages and begins with a 180km liaison across the border into Sénégal. Team Repsol Mitsubishi Ralliart will then tackle a varied 260km special on stony terrain and across laterite piste to finish a mere 18km from the Sénégalese town of Tambacounda, a regular stopover on the Dakar Rally and the final bivouac on this year's event.
There are now only around 1,127km for competitors to cross before they reach the finish in Dakar and a mere 501km are competitive.