The last major obstacle has been passed at the 2017 Dakar Rally and now tomorrow’s home straight between Rio Cuarto and Buenos Aires is all that remains of the arduous 9,000km route through South America. There were some nervous moments for our race leaders on the penultimate stage, but the summit of the leaderboards across all four categories stays unchanged after Stage 11.
There’s now just 64km of timed racing for Sam Sunderland (GBR) to successfully navigate before becoming the first British winner of the Dakar Rally. The Red Bull KTM Factory Team rider protected his lead on today’s route from San Juan to Rio Cuarto to leave himself with a cushion of 33m09s ahead of tomorrow’s final stage. Sunderland’s nearest challenger is team-mate Matthias Walkner (AUT) so the chances of KTM securing a 16th consecutive bike title are looking strong.
A special mention must go to rider tefan Svitko (SVK) who was taken to hospital at the conclusion of Stage 10 in a state of exhaustion. The Slovakian was back on his bike today though and recorded the ninth quickest time on the stage. There’s also been an impressive fightback from Hélder Rodrigues (PRT) who has been able to put a difficult first week on the bike behind him to be on the verge of the ninth Top 10 finish of his Dakar career.
While a Brit is bossing the bike race there seems no doubt that we will have a French winner driving a French vehicle in the car category. Three PEUGEOT 3008 DKRs occupy the overall podium positions with Stéphane Peterhansel (FRA) in front with a lead of 5m32s over team-mate Sébastien Loeb (FRA). Fellow Team Peugeot Total driver Cyril Despres (FRA) is third with an advantage of around 45 minutes on Nani Roma (ESP) in fourth.
As with the bikes and cars, it’s a battle between team-mates at the top of the truck race. 2013 Dakar winner Eduard Nikolaev (RUS) currently leads his Team Kamaz Master stablemate Dmitry Sotnikov (RUS) by 17m09s. Reigning champion trucker Gerard De Rooy (NLD) looks set to concede his crown tomorrow as he trails Nikolaev by 38m58s.
We’re also looking at Russian success in the quad race with leader Sergey Karyakin (RUS) increasing his advantage over nearest challenger Ignacio Casale (CHL) today. With a significant gap of 1h16m24s between Karyakin and Casale it looks unlikely that things will change too much on tomorrow’s short final stage. However, after retiring on Stage Six last year a podium finish would still represent a return to form for Chilean Casale.
So there’s a short and sweet 64km timed special stage on Saturday that will determine our winners at this year’s Dakar. Strange things have happened in previous years on the final day and nobody in the Rio Cuarto bivouac is taking their result for granted just yet. Any celebrations will be kept on ice until competitors reach the final finish line tomorrow.
Stéphane Peterhansel #300: It was a good fight with Séb (Loeb) this morning and we lost three minutes as he went on full attack. Then Séb got a puncture so that was my chance to attack back. It’s nice to have this kind of fight until the end of the rally. It’s really an honour for me to compete with Sébastien Loeb, especially on the WRC-style tracks we had on the second part of the special. We’re both fighting for the win but we’re team-mates so we can still joke about things after the racing is done.
Sébastien Loeb #309: We were able catch some time on Stéphane (Peterhansel) but a puncture stopped us from making as much progress as we would have liked. Then we caught up with Stéphane but with all the dust it was impossible to pass. We thought we’re just one day from the end now so it’s not the time to try anything too risky. The gap seems too big to deal with on the short stage tomorrow but we’ll try our best.
Cyril Despres #307: Today we came closer to Buenos Aires on a rocky and narrow track that was easy to make mistakes on. There was a risk of punctures on this section. But it was enjoyable to ride. The only bad part was coming into dust and trying to overtake was not easy because it was so narrow. Before the race we thought that third place would be a good result for us so we’ll do our best to hold this result on tomorrow’s stage.
Sam Sunderland #14: On the first part of the stage we had sand whoops and it was really physical. But I feel quite at home in the sand and even though I was riding quite reserved I managed to catch a few of the guys in front. Then the second part was more high-speed across farmland. I knew Matthias (Walkner) was behind me and he’s in a fight for second overall so I didn’t want to make dust for him. I cruised for a bit to let him past and then followed him in. Now there’s still one stage to go and I’m not going to let myself believe it until it’s done.
Matthias Walkner #16: I had a bit of pain in my knee today so over the bumpy sections I lost some time because I had to adjust my rhythm. Then the second section was faster on a twisty piste and I felt a lot better on this. Tomorrow is short but you can lose time just like you can on a long stage. Sam (Sunderland) and myself have never finished a Dakar and we’re both aiming to fix that tomorrow.
Hélder Rodrigues #5: I’m not so happy with my results this year. I got lost on two early stages and when you lose the front of the race it’s nearly impossible to get back up there at the Dakar. It’s just been on these final days that I’ve really found some speed. This Dakar has flown by fast and now we have just one day more. But the most important thing is to finish and I’ll enjoy that feeling tomorrow hopefully.