Nasser Al-Attiyah won his fifth stage on the Dakar Rally on Thursday when he finished nearly two minutes ahead of leader Stephane Peterhansel but still trails the Frenchman with one day to go.
Peterhansel will start the final stage, a 225-kilometre run across chains of dunes to Jeddah, leading by a quarter of an hour as he seeks to add to his record 13 victories in the race.
“We lost just a few minutes, it’s nothing,” said Peterhansel at the finish. “There’s only one day to go… It’s time to cross fingers and hope that we will be in first place at the end”.
The longest stage of the race, a 464-kilometre drive across sand dunes from Al Ula to Yanbu brought a day of changing fortunes.
Peterhansel led with an advantage of more than three minutes over Al-Attiyah after 306 kilometres but suffered two punctures.
Khalid Al-Qassimi took the lead after 362 kilometres at which point Al-Attiyah had closed to within seven seconds of Peterhansel.
Peterhansel regained the lead and was 38 seconds ahead of the chasing Al-Attiyah 30 kilometres from the finish but could not hold the lead.
“Today it was really complicated, like the organisers said beforehand, like we expected it to be, because the navigation was not easy, but we got two punctures, especially the last one that was in the dunes,” the Frenchman said.
“They were really strange dunes,” he added. “In the middle of the dunes there were some rocks just after the crest of the dunes, so it was not easy to anticipate or to see. The last one was a very big impact and we had another puncture. We were a little bit afraid that also some part of the frame was broken, but at the end it was OK.”
Al-Attiyah, driving a Toyota, eventually crossed the line in 4hr 34min 24sec, 1min 56sec ahead of Peterhansel in his Mini.
“It really wasn’t easy,” said the Qatari, who also won the prologue.
“I am really happy to be here on day 11 without any technical problems with the car,” he added. “We have really had a lot of punctures. I’ve had more than 16 tyres punctured. I am sure that 16 tyres times one minute and a half each change is a lot.”
“We’ll see what happens tomorrow,” he said.
Spaniard Carlos Sainz in another Mini was a further 30 seconds back in third. Saudi Yazeed Al-Rajhi was fourth in a Toyota.
– ‘My last chance’ –
Briton Sam Sunderland, 2017 Dakar champion, won the motorbike category, the KTM rider timing 4hr 35min 21 sec for the stage, maintaining a comfortable 2:40 lead over the Husqvarna ridden by Pablo Quintanilla.
“I knew that today was one of my last chances to try to win and I gave my all, all day,” said Sunderland.
“We still have one day to go and many things can happen on one stage.”
Argentina’s Kevin Benavides increased his lead in the overall standings over American Honda teammate and defending champion Ricky Brabec to 7:13, with Sunderland currently second, at 4:12.
“We did a really good job with Ricky,” said Benavides, who broke his nose as he shattered his helmet jumping off a dune on stage five.
“It was a really hard day, very long with plenty of navigation, a lot of sand and dunes.”
Benavides added: “With Ricky we pushed together on the dunes… Tomorrow we will push like every day, no other strategy than that.
“There are no team orders and yes, the race is still open.”
There was drama on the stage as Spain’s Joan Barreda, a two-stage winner also on a Honda, exited the race after missing a refuelling stop and subsequently running out of petrol.
Al-Attiyah wins stage but deflated Peterhansel keeps lead The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ France 24.