France’s defending champion Stephane Peterhansel took a huge step toward his 11th Dakar Rally win on Monday as his main rival, Nasser al-Attiyah, struggled during the ninth stage, the longest of the race.
Spaniard Nani Roma won the stage — his second of this year’s edition and 13th of his career — leading in a Mini 1-2 with 47-year-old Peterhansel — six times champion on a motorbike and four times in a car — second and Argentine Orlando Terranova third in a BMW.
Al-Attiyah — the 2011 champion — had to stop several times during the stage in his Red Bull Buggy including just 4km from the finish line and saw his dreams of a second Dakar title dashed.
Peterhansel now has a comfortable lead of almost 50 minutes over his nearest rival, South African Giniel de Villiers.
“We could have gained even more time, but we would have had to take risks,” Peterhansel said. “It’s [the title] getting closer, but there are still a few long stages left, which favor the buggies. We need to take time whenever we can, because we can always make mistakes in Fiambala or on the dunes of Copiapo.”
Earlier, defending motorbike champion Cyril Despres stormed back into contention for this year’s title as the Frenchman won his first stage of this year’s renewal.
The 38-year-old KTM star started the day over 24 minutes off the pace, but finished the stage in second place overall as he came in 4 minutes, 3 seconds ahead of Spanish rider Joan Barreda, on a Husqvarna.
Despres put himself firmly into the mix for retaining the title as the four-time champion trails teammate Ruben Faria of Portugal by 5:23, but said it had been about time he made an impression.
“I knew that it would be physically demanding, that I’d have to give it my all,” Despres said. “I’ve got blisters on my feet and my hands are sore, but I had to bang my fist on the table to say: “Hey, I’m here. Ruben and I are racing well for the team, he’s in good shape and that’s the most important thing right now.”
While Despres entered the overall picture, two of his compatriots fell away completely on the race’s longest stage, 852km from Tucuman including 593km of it timed.
David Casteu — who led overnight going into the stage — hit a cow with his Yamaha during the timed section, which resulted in him dislocating his shoulder and another stop on the stage saw him slip from pole position to not having a hope of winning the title.
His compatriot Olivier Pain also had a day to forget as he came off the bike on several occasions and lost about 32 minutes to also lose sight of overall victory.