298km on dirt and gravel roads through farmland and over a couple of hills. No dunes, no fesh fesh, no navigating across barren desert. What could go wrong?
Another before dawn start, packing away a damp sleeping bag, (I’ve learned that dew in Lithuanian is Rasa), a quick breakfast and some extra buns taken for lunch seeing as press are still not worthy of getting a snack box, and then off south in the gathering light. The Ghostbusters theme is the first thing on the stereo. Our driver loves single lane highways. They give him the perfect opportunity to show off his road rage skills. Seatbelts securely fastened we invented a new game to replace I Spy (which has been banned in the car for over a week.) We awarded him points for every on-coming car he forced off the road, red lights he ran and how many policemen shook their fists at him (3). He has learned that Dakar traffic is immune to local traffic laws. There was good cell coverage so I took my mind off impending twisted metal death by chatting to friends on Facebook and snoozing until 420km down the road we found ourselves at the time controls at the end of the stage.
Somewhere in central Argentina it was a glorious summer’s day. The smell of grass and pollen and the smoke of BBQs. If Argentineans sit down outside for more than 20 minutes they have to start roasting meat. Butterflies fluttered in the dust dragged up by the last of the bikers and the young girls squealed with joy when a quad rider came over to sign an autograph. Thanks to the good internet we could see the live timing and saw that car 339 was in 5th. But then there was a MINI coming and the quad rider was hastily shooed away by the officials to make way for the champion elect at the time control. Numbers noted down, card stamped and then Nasser Al-Attityah pulled up in the interview area where some sort of unspoken hierarchy of cameramen is in play as they jostle around with bulky machines on their shoulders. I have no idea who is more important than who so I keep back out of sight and just listen.
Getting out of the car as fresh as though he’d just popped down to the shops Al-Attityah said, “I had to go fast today because if you slow down you start to loose concentration and think about other things. But we did well, no one else caught us. Everything is working 100% for us this year.”
A couple of minutes behind was the sister MINI of Orlando Terranova, who won the stage, and like yesterday, quite a gap back to the first Toyota which was South African Giles de Villiers. “We reduced the speed quite a lot because we can’t catch Al-Attiyah and on a fast stage like this it’s easy to make a mistake. It was very slippery and there were lots of rocks at the side of the road so I took it quite easy. We need to get to the podium tomorrow and have one more stage to do.”
Dutch Toyota Bernard Ten Brinke was another driver happy to get to the end of the last tough Dakar stage. “I am quite happy with the event overall. We can see that I can do times like the top guys, we had a 3rd place twice and if we hadn’t have lost an hour and a half with the driveshaft problem that cost an hour and a half we would have been 4th. But we are happy with 7th.”
The beautiful Peugeot 2008 DKR came over the line with Stephane Peterhansel ready for a cold Red Bull from one of the pretty girls dispensing the chilled cans. “The stage was fast and we were sliding a lot but now we have a lot more info and for next year I am sure that we’ll be ready for the fight.”
The bright orange Gordini of Robby Gordon came into view with the customary cries from the excited local fans. “It was fast but very slippery, one of the most slippery of the whole rally but out Toyo tyres are really great, they wear really, really well but for today I think they were a bit too hard for the stage.” The French reporters pulled away a twig that was stuck on the Re-Play camera mounting. “Yes, we had a bit of an off track excursion but 8th place today should be considered a success. The Gordini is plenty fast enough but we have some work to do on it. But if you take away the 5:20 of problems we had we’d be on the podium not in 20th.”
Guerlain Chicerit in the zebra painted buggy was next in line. “Getting here I can only say is positive because there were so many times I thought that we wouldn’t make it. Ten times we’ve changed the power steering pump in a stage and each time takes an hour and a half, twice we broke the clutch and one of those times we fixed it in the stage. You have to take the gearbox out to do it, but we managed it in an hour and fifteen minutes which wasn’t so bad. Also, we had a broken gearbox, which we also fixed in the stage, the diff… oh, and one day the fuel blew out of the tank and caused a big fire. That took 5 hours to fix… and many small things as well. So I mean it when I say it’s really good to almost see the end!”
Two green Ivecos came in first in the truck class followed by the three Kamaz. I was 10 metres away from them on a stage a few days ago but today I wasn’t paying attention and nearly had my feet run over. Still, was a cool experience!
But there was bad news for the Lithuanians. The great time for CP4 wasn’t repeated for CP5… in fact Benediktas Vanagas was missing. A text from Vilnius told us that he’d rolled. Several cars came through with damage, Marek Dobrowski and Mark Powell came in with a lot of the side of the car missing, so too a Russian Hi-Lux and a couple of trucks. Finally, the bent black Toyota came in and we got the story. “The stage was a technical one but it was quite dangerous as the roadbook had several mistakes, some marked distances were wrong and dangerous sections were not written at all. At the finish journalists told us that quite a few teams had crashed and I am not surprised. Our overall position is what it is so today I was driving just for the pleasure of it but in one corner we went in a little too hard and pulled the tyre off the rim which tipped us into a roll. It was quite a job to get the car back on its wheels and then we had to kick out the front window as it was smashed, but when we started again the engine would only give about 15% of throttle before it cut out which is why we lost a lot of time. Fortunately we only lost one position overall. Tonight the mechanics will be busy but tomorrow we have the last stage to do… and then to stand on the finish podium!”
We’re now driving towards Rosario, the evening turning into night. 739km done so far today, 168 to go. Benediktas told me what happened by sms while driving down the motorway in goggles because he has no windscreen. According to the GPS we’ll get into the camp just before midnight but then it’s the grand finale, the shortest stage of the whole event with just 174km before a cruise into the city for the finish podium.
Fingers crossed that Antonio and Bryan drove around the gearbox issues and made it through.
A fat lady in Buenos Aires is warming up her vocal chords because tomorrow she sings.