Nine-time champion Stephane Peterhansel moved into first place in the Dakar Rally with a commanding victory in Wednesday’s fourth stage.
The Frenchman, racing in a Mini, won the 326km special stage from San Juan to Chilecito in northwestern Argentina, a tricky drive featuring dried riverbeds, by more than five minutes.
The pre-race favorite, Peterhansel rose from fifth, and nearly three minutes behind, to first, and 5 minutes, 41 seconds up on the field.
“We just stayed out of trouble to avoid getting lost or having flat tires,” Peterhansel said.
He has won six times on motorbikes and three in cars, and the stage win was his 58th.
In motorbikes, defending champion Marc Coma of Spain won to cut 2:02 off the overall lead of his KTM teammate Cyril Despres of France.
Peterhansel benefited from the bad luck of defending champion Nasser Al-Attiyah, who led through the first two checkpoints and less than 40km from the end until his Hummer got stuck in mud. It took the Qatari 13 minutes to get himself out and he ended up 30 minutes behind the overall leader.
“The race is not over yet and we will try to do our best over the next 10 days,” Al-Attiyah said. “I am starting to get the feel of my car.”
Teammate Robby Gordon of the US, who started the day second overall, suffered a series of flat tires, slipping him to 16:23 behind Peterhansel.
Orlando Terranova of Argentina was second in the stage in a Toyota, 6:42 in front of Giniel De Villiers of South Africa, also in a Toyota. De Villiers moved to second overall, with fellow Mini driver Joan Roma of Spain third.
Coma’s fast pace netted him the stage win, and reduced Despres’ overall lead to 8:10 in the two-man race for the title.
“I focused on navigation to avoid making any mistakes,” Despres said. “I am quite happy to only lose two minutes.”
Their nearest rival, Helder Rodrigues of Portugal in third, was 26:48 back.
Organizers did not report any major accidents on the fourth stage.
Three people have died over the first few days of the rally, considered one of the most dangerous events in motor sports.
Argentine bike rider Jorge Martinez Boero died in a crash in Sunday’s first stage. On the same day, the pilot of an ultralight plane and his son died when the aircraft went down while following the race.
The race begins in Argentina, passes through Chile, and finishes on Jan. 15 in Peru’s capital Lima.