The campsite was indeed flooded. On the road into Salta last night road workers were flagging us down to be careful of the deep water that was coming off the sodden fields. The camp was in some sort of conference centre car park so at least we were on concrete and not in deep mud. Neither Gedmus nor I could work out if the lake in the middle of the grass was supposed to be there or not but the river flowing off it wasn’t. It must have been a very big storm!
A couple of weeks ago now Nani Roma’s MINI let him down in the first 10km of the event and yesterday the Spanish driver got his revenge on it by destroying The ALL4 in a series of barrel rolls. X-Raid team mate Nasser Al-Attiyah, despite saying that he would take it easy, won the stage and now the likable Qatari has nearly a 30 minute advantage with 3 days to go. And one of those is the reverse running of the impossible to overtake on first stage. If a Chilean shaman gave Giles de Villiers a voodoo doll MINI now is the time to start sticking pins in it.
If some stages before had a festival atmosphere today was a picnic scene. A dense woodland, a little river smelling of sulphur from near by hot springs and the local Argentineans making BBQs on the banks. We were 2 hours early so had plenty of time to lounge in the shade and bang on schedule Al-Attiyah came around the corner, but slow. Something was obviously wrong, but he was still first on the road so it must just have happened… but then we realised that we’d been waiting in a neutralised zone. It was a bit of an anti-climax but hitting the water at 50km/h still made a big enough splash to make the locals cheer. Orlando Terranova was 3 minutes behind but there was a 10 minute gap to a couple of Toyotas together… but there was some news for us too. A certain Lithuanian driver with a fractured arm was 4th at CP2.
The service park is in the paddock of a race track. It hosts the WTCC but after the Dakar’s little visit it will need some serious landscaping to fill in the ditches that T4 truck wheels have made in the damp grass. Big news tonight is also sad news. One of the stars of the show, rookie Yazeed Al-Rahji, is out. The engine had a misfire yesterday and although they won’t know the exact cause until they strip it down they suspect that an electrical fault caused the engine to go. An Overdrive guy explained that of course the Saudi driver is disappointed but he’s proud of what he achieved.
Al-Rajhi’s demise means that Poland’s X-Raid driver Krzysztof Holowczyc gets a promotion to the podium. “I was always the one who had bad luck and gave places away so maybe this time I get it back,” he said. “On Stage 2 I lost 20 minutes when I only had front wheel drive and from then I completely changed my strategy. I would just keep to my own speed and just keep going. If you look you’ll see 4th, 5th, 4th, 5th, 6th… nothing special, but this plan for a long race is working. But it is not over yet we have 2 stages to go. We make sure that the car is as good as new every morning and I am not nervous, I am just doing my job.”
Another relaxed guy is Al-Attiyah. “We had a good day today but whenever you win a stage that you open it’s good, although I wasn’t trying to, just today everything worked well.” And then he told me that he liked my stories! “Yes, my press guy Marcin sends me the links everyday. I like what you write.” Well, if you are reading this, I hope you know that means a lot.
Also, I’m going to ask for a hat tomorrow for my friend Edgar who collects them, so if someone is reading this and knows in which box they are kept…
Running along half naked with a big smile on his face was Antonio Hasbun driver of the No 430 buggy. He only likes the reports on the Top Gear website, unlike Nasser he doesn’t read mine, so I can write anything I like about him and he won’t ask for his sleeping bag back! American co-driver Bryan Garvey explained that even though the event is winding down it is still a long way from being easy. “The stage was more for rally cars today and as we don’t have a sway bar the car really leans in the corners, but about half way through we lost 3rd gear and then 4th started being a little funny. And then 6km from the end we lost the brakes.”
“But that’s no big deal,” Antonio added. “Apart from the first time you find out that you have no brakes. But tonight we’ll change the oil, try to get what used to be 3rd gear out with a magnet and then just take it easy…”
But big news, not just for the Lithuanian team I am following the event with, but for the whole of the Dakar, is that Benediktas did finish 4th today. 1 second behind de Villiers. With a fractured arm. I don’t write press releases and I hope after the last 12 days my integrity can be trusted, but I have to say that I am utterly impressed and certainly from what I’ve seen, especially as he was nearly unconscious at the stage finish a couple of days ago, this must be one of the stories of the Dakar. “We are a small team and because it’s nearly the end of the event today we were running on second-hand tyres that already had about 400km on them, so all the stage I could really feel the lack of grip. That cost us at least 2 minutes. Also, for 30km we were in the dust fighting to get past a buggy, so when I looked at the time and saw we were just 1 second away from 3rd and 30-something from the win…”
And what about the broken arm? “The first stage I drove with it I already worked out a way to rest it against the steering wheel to hold it steady while I change gear. I can’t grip it, but it works. But today we had a hard hit and it got knocked… it was quite hard to drive after that. But when it happened I said that we would continue!”
I am writing this sitting next to the No 339 Toyota with the mechanics running through the daily checks and have the amazing luxury of uploading photos where I sit! No need to curb-crawl the back streets of a random Argentinean town looking for wi-fi this evening! Tomorrow is a bastard long 1024km from camp to camp with a 298km special of gravel and dirt in the middle. The dodgy English in the Dakar guidebook warns of combatitive drivers and surprising vegetation but definitely suggests a very late arrival at the next bivouac. See you there!