Cyril Despres regained the upper hand in his Dakar Rally battle with motorcycle rival Marc Coma on Tuesday as defending car champion Nasser al-Attiyah was forced out of the race in the ninth stage.
The 31-year-old Qatari had to pull out when his temperamental Hummer suffered more mechanical problems — American Robby Gordon in another Hummer won the stage to slice more time off overall leader Stephane Peterhansel’s advantage.
Three-time bike champion Despres, riding a KTM, responded to Coma’s win on Monday when taking the 556km stage from Antofogasta, which finished with a dramatic descent down an 800m high dune.
Despres, who timed 5 hours, 4 minutes, 33 seconds, with Spaniard Coma coming in 3 minutes, 54 seconds behind, replaced the Spaniard at the top of the overall rankings.
Despres holds a lead of 2 minutes, 28 seconds and the 37-year-old Frenchman said that he had emerged from his terrible day on Monday in a positive frame of mind.
“After a difficult day yesterday, when you start to doubt, I had to get back to winning ways,” Despres said. “We came into this looking at a battle for seconds or minutes. It’s very competitive. Like any top level sportsman, if you don’t like confrontation or squeezing the last ounces of strength out of yourself, then you’re not ready for a fight. But, as for me, I’m up for it.”
Gordon, 43, had been highlighted by Peterhansel as the danger man after Monday’s stage and the American didn’t do anything to dissuade him from that point of view as he further ate into the French Dakar legend’s lead.
Gordon, whose best finish was third in the 2009 edition, timed 4 hours, 35 minutes, 21 seconds, 1 minute, 38 seconds faster than 46-year-old Peterhansel, while Monday’s stage winner Spanish driver Nani Roma was third, 8 minutes, 37 seconds adrift.
Gordon said that he had no option but to attack in what remained of the Rally, though he sounded full of confidence.
Peterhansel said that Gordon had got the better of him, but took the retirement of al-Attiyah as a boost for him and his Mini team.
“We’re going to fight to hold on to the slender lead we have over him [Gordon],” the Frenchman said. “I started to wonder if Nasser was having technical problems when I saw that he wasn’t catching me up. It means that Gordon is on his own now and for us that makes things a little bit better. There are flaws with the Hummers. I just hope that we’ll be able to take advantage of them.”
Gordon’s joy was in stark contrast to that of his fellow Hummer pilot al-Attiyah, who had been plagued by problems since the start in Mar Del Plata on New Year’s Day.
He lined up for Tuesday’s ninth stage in sixth position overall, eight minutes behind Peterhansel, having struggled to make up the loss of 10 minutes on the opening stage.
Al-Attiyah, who is hoping to compete in his third Olympic Games in shooting in London, lost more precious time when he was forced to make three unscheduled stops.
Initial reports suggest his US-backed Hummer had suffered problems with its alternator.
He decided to call time on his title defense at the 174km mark of the timed special in a race in which, despite his mechanical gremlins, he still managed to post the fastest times in the second and seventh stages.