Rally legend Sebastien Loeb at last had something to smile about after two nightmare days as the Frenchman won the fourth stage of the Dakar Rally on Wednesday.
The 48-year-old — who was crowned world rally champion a record nine times — had lost over an hour and a half on the previous two stages but he was back to his regal best for Wednesday’s 425 kilometres special raced around Hail.
He denied his compatriot ‘Mr Dakar’ Stephane Peterhansel his 50th stage win in the ultimate test of motoring endurance — Loeb timing just 13 seconds faster.
Loeb admitted afterwards it had been far from plain sailing for him in his Prodrive.
“We lost the power-steering 20 kilometres from the end, so we had to finish the stage very slowly,” he said.
“I couldn’t keep the car on the tracks. We span out at one point because I couldn’t turn the steering wheel.
“It was very difficult to finish the stage, but at the end we still have the best time, so it’s better than nothing.”
Peterhansel, who has a total of 14 Dakar wins to his name — eight on a motorbike and six behind the wheel — battled hard but had to settle for second which leaves him third in the overall standings.
“There were a lot of dunes and camel grass,” said the 57-year-old.
“If we wanted to get a good time we had to push and take a lot of impacts on the car as well as the body. It’s like fighting for four hours. But we did it and I think it’s a good result”.
Less fortunate than Loeb was fellow Prodrive team-mate Orlando Terranova, who returned to camp with a sore back and will consult the team physiotherapist.
Loeb’s hopes of going one better than last year’s runners-up spot look forlorn but things are looking rosy for Qatar’s defending champion Nasser Al-Attiyah who tops the standings, 18 minutes ahead of Toyota team-mate Saudi driver Yazeed Al Rajhi.
“The race is really changing every day,” said Al-Attiyah. “The second week will be more interesting.”
Spanish rider Joan Barreda took the honours in the motorcycling category winning his first stage of this year’s race.
Australia’s Dominic Sanders, winner of Tuesday’s stage, retains the overall lead, 3min 33sec ahead of the American Skyler Howes with Kevin Benavides of Argentina 4min 5sec adrift in third.
Sanders, though, worryingly for his fans said he was suffering from a sore arm after posting the eighth fastest time, over 10min off the winner.
“I think for me now it’s just a case of trying to get some recovery and take it easy for the next few days because my arm is pretty sore already and the elbow isn’t 100 percent,” said Sanders, who fractured his left elbow and wrist when he crashed in last year’s race.
“We’ll take it easy. It’s a long race. I’m just trying to calm myself down every day. I said to myself and the family and friends back home that after the year off I’ll be happy with a top 10 finish.”
Barreda, on a Honda, timed 16 seconds faster than Chilean team-mate Pablo Quintanilla with the ultra-consistent Howes third, 1min 5sec off the pace.
Howes’s compatriot Mason Klein was the big loser on two wheels. He led for most of the stage until a fuel intake problem 20km from the finish cost him dearly, losing 12 minutes.
As a result he dropped from second overall to sixth.
“I had to stop, take the tank off and pour it in the back,” he said.
“Then I couldn’t get the skid plate bolt back in.
“I was getting very stressed. It’s pretty disappointing because the day was going so well, but at least we made it here.”
Chile’s Jose Ignacio Cornejo earned plaudits in stopping to help injured Hero rider Joaquin Rodrigues, who ultimately had to retire from the race.
Cornejo had the time lost for his act of selflessness restored by the organisers.
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