Qatari driver Nasser Al-Attiyah’s strategy of playing it safe saw him move a step closer to retaining his Dakar Rally title and his fifth in all following Tuesday’s ninth stage.
The 52-year-old Toyota driver finished 11min 8sec adrift of the stage winner, nine-time world rally champion Sebastien Loeb.
However, the pressure further eased on Al-Attiyah as his closest pursuer overnight, the South driver African Henk Lategan, suffered a mechanical problem and lost 40 minutes.
Al-Attiyah holds a lead of 1hr 21min over another Toyota driver, Brazil’s Lucas Moraes, with Loeb a further 19min in arrears.
“Today we did a really good job without any mistakes, without any problems,” said Al-Attiyah, bidding to become the first back to back winner since ‘Mr Dakar’ Stephane Peterhansel in 2016/17.
“We need to take it day by day like this without any problems. We have a big gap now and I hope to finish and to win this Dakar.”
Three-time Dakar Rally car champion Carlos Sainz showed gritty determination in ordering a helicopter ambulance to turn around and return him to his stricken car.
The 60-year-old’s Audi came to grief just six kilometres into the stage and as a precaution he and his co-pilot Lucas Cruz were airlifted to hospital.
“The Spaniard wished to have a chance of resuming the race and demanded that the helicopter ambulance turn round and drop him back at his car,” race organisers Amaury Sport Organisation said in a statement.
The two-time world rally champion had lost all hope of a fourth title last Friday when a front wheel came off in an accident.
Despite suffering from chest pain as a result of the mishap he insisted on carrying on and started Tuesday’s stage languishing in 100th spot, over 29 hours in arrears of Al-Attiyah.
‘More and more challenges’
Earlier Argentinian rider Luciano Benavides, younger brother of title contender Kevin, won the stage in the motorcycling category.
The 27-year-old Husqvarna motorcyclist secured his second stage win of this year’s race as he timed 1min 2sec faster over the 358-kilometre special than Australian Toby Price on a KTM.
Overall leader Skyler Howes of the United States was third, 2min 57sec off the pace set by the stage winner.
Howes retains the overall lead for a fifth successive day but he enjoys a razor-thin advantage over Price of three seconds as the ultimate test of endurance enters its decisive stages with the climax on Sunday.
“It was a demanding stage, for sure, with lots of water,” said Howes.
“It was super crazy. We were going through giant rivers in the middle of the desert.
“So now we head all the way down to the Empty Quarter and I assume it’s going to be the same, with more and more challenges down there.”
Kevin Benavides is not out of the mix either as he sits in third spot, 5min 9sec adrift.
However, there were two big losers on Tuesday — Frenchman Adrien van Beveren and fourth stage winner Joan Barreda of Spain.
Van Beveren finds himself over 15 minutes off Howes, having started the day under three minutes shy of the leader, due to getting lost on the first part of the stage.
For Barreda, though, there is no coming back as the Spaniard was airlifted to hospital with back pain following a crash on his Honda.
Howes said it was a “bummer” to see Barreda lying prone in the sand.
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