The 2016 Silk Way Rally has entered its third and final country and the race pace shows no signs of slowing down. Having conquered testing terrain in both Russia and Kazakhstan the Silk Way convoy is currently locked in an intense battle over the sands of the Gobi Desert in China.
In the car category there are a pair of Peugeot 2008 DKRs having their own race at the very front of the rally. Cyril Despres has the lead after 10 stages, but team-mate and fellow Frenchman Sébastien Loeb is less than 10 minutes behind. The nearest competitor to this duo is a further 18 minutes back from Sébastien in the general classification.
Cyril and Sébastien have both been benefitting from the performance of the third Team Peugeot-Total driver in the race, Stéphane Peterhansel. The 12-time Dakar winner suffered a spectacular crash on stage five of the Silk Way and since then has been committed to helping his team-mates secure successful results for the team. A stunning one-two-three result on stage nine showed that all three Peugeot drivers are capable of increasing the gap currently enjoyed by Cyril and Sébastien. The team will be after more stage wins and an overall race victory to toast when the finish line is crossed in Beijing this Sunday.
Carlos Sainz, the fourth member of Team Peugeot-Total, is also in action this week as he competes in the three-day Baja Aragón in his native Spain. Carlos will be pitted against fellow former Dakar Rally winners Nasser Al-Attiyah and Nani Roma as he looks to give the home crowd plenty to cheer, and possibly contribute to a double celebration for Peugeot this weekend.
Back in China the Silk Way truck race has five more stages to contest before reaching Beijing with Team Kamaz Master looking to overhaul overall leader Martin Van Den Brink. The Dutchman is currently being chased down by a quartet of Russian trucks as Kamaz occupy four spots in the top five. 2015 Dakar winner Ayrat Mardeev is the closest to the leader with a gap of under five minutes between them. Just like Peugeot’s tactics in the car race, Kamaz are intent on working as a team to ensure one of their machines is on the top step of the podium in the Chinese capital this weekend.
Today’s stage from Dunhuang to Jiayuguan features nearly 200 kilometres of timed racing with plenty of scope for charging up the leaderboard. Dunes will feature early in the day before mountain tracks take competitors to an altitude of 2,500 metres above sea level. The immense challenges for both man and machine at the Silk Way are a long way from being over and the speeds only appear to be getting quicker.
Cyril Despres: « It’s quite a job trying not to lose too much ground to Sébastien Loeb! We only dropped two minutes today and we had some good sport! We were flat out all day and, apart from a short time when we got stuck in sand, it was a fast stage, with some peaks at 180kph. I’m glad to see that I am starting to think ahead, so I’m getting caught out less frequently. I sense where I can be gentler on the brakes and harder on the throttle. David (Castera, co-driver) and I are just trying to keep a clear head and be as tidy as we can on the stages. I feel confident and the Peugeot is a delight to drive. »
Sébastien Loeb: « Cyril (Despres) and I stayed together, repeatedly passing each other while keeping up a fast pace. We know we lack experience but we’re in a good position. I am very happy with the way today went and we didn’t make many mistakes. Running at the front is doing us good because we are improving day after day. I haven’t decided on any sort of strategy for the next few days. It’s hard to control the situation when you’re in the midst of a competition like this. Instead of trying to play it smart, we are going with the flow. We will continue to push and do our best on the stages, while trying not to make any navigational errors. We have valuable rear-guard protection from Stéphane (Peterhansel). It’s good to have them just behind us, just in case. »
Stéphane Peterhansel: « We were fastest on the stage but, as is often the case on the Silk Way Rally, start orders had a big influence on the result. We soon closed on the cars ahead of us and, as they erred off the correct route, we found ourselves up at the front of the field. I think it was just a case of making fewer mistakes than the others. We will consequently be first on the road tomorrow and we know we will need to wait for Cyril (Despres) and Sébastien (Loeb) because our role now is to provide them with assistance if they need it. It’s the first time I’ve had to do that but I am happy to play the team game to make sure there’s a Peugeot on top when we reach Beijing. It’s a little less stressful like this, so you can have more fun driving because you’re not trying to save every tiny second. All I have to play for is to help my colleagues. »