Defending champion Stephane Peterhansel withdrew from the Dakar Rally with a broken engine on Friday, while Carlos Sainz won the seventh stage across the Andes and regained the lead.
Peterhansel, the Dakar’s most successful competitor with nine titles and 51 stage wins, endured an engine fire when the race resumed from Mendoza, Argentina.
The Frenchman put that out and carried on, but then had to stop with an overheated engine. Soon after, his Mitsubishi Lancer broke down and he had to be towed home in his 20th Dakar.
His withdrawal at the halfway point, while running fourth overall, left Mitsubishi’s chances of an eighth consecutive victory severely dimmed. Peterhansel’s exit followed teammates Hiroshi Masuoka and Luc Alphand — who’d won the last six Dakars between them — and gave Volkswagen a shot at its first title since the second rally in 1980.
Sainz leads Volkswagen’s dominance in the general classification after his third stage win on the shortened 243km special.
After starting in sand dunes, climbing to 3,000m, and finishing with a muddy run into Valparaiso, Chile, former world champion Sainz beat teammate Mark Miller of the US by 3 minutes, 41 seconds. Robby Gordon of the US was third in his Hummer, 4:13 back. Overnight leader Giniel de Villiers of South Africa was sixth.
Overall, VWs had the top three placings, with Spain’s Sainz 9 seconds ahead of De Villiers, and 13:53 up on Miller.
Nani Roma of Spain, fourth in the stage and overall, vowed to push the VWs all the way as their last main Mitsubishi rival.
“If VW want to win the rally then it’s going to be tough, because I’m not going to let up,” Roma said.
Francisco Lopez, a former 450cc world champion, pleased his Chile countrymen by winning the motorbike leg for his first stage victory.
Overall leader Marc Coma of Spain was second in, and widened his lead to more than 51 minutes over American Jonah Street, who was eighth on the stage.
Defending champion Cyril Despres of France was third on Friday and dropped to sixth overall, more than 90 minutes behind 2006 champion Coma.
Yesterday was to be the first rest day of the rally.
Meanwhile, two people were killed on Friday when a Dakar Rally support truck from Argentina slammed head-on into another vehicle, police said.
The accident occurred near Pejerreyes, 400km north of Santiago near the route of Monday’s planned ninth stage between La Serena and Copiapo.
The support truck, carrying tires for rally contestants, was operated by an Argentinian company. It was traveling with a Dakar Rally organization logistical support car.
According to the initial police reports, Argentinian truck driver Marcelo Sanchez crossed the center line for an unknown reason and hit the smaller oncoming vehicle.
The two occupants of the vehicle, who were Peruvian, were killed.
Sanchez was jailed pending an investigation, police said.
The famed race is being held in South America because of terrorist fears in Africa, and has already been marred by the death of French motorcyclist Pascal Terry. Friday’s stage brought the race from Argentina into Chile for the first time.