On day seven car competitors drove into Bolivia for the first time in Dakar history. The opening leg of this marathon stage, a concept last seen on the Dakar in 2009, took the crews up to an altitude of more than 3,500 metres before plunging them into muddy valleys. Weather conditions were particularly extreme, providing some of the most challenging terrain seen so far on the event.
An extra ingredient has been added for today and tomorrow in addition to the usual challenges of the race: the marathon stage. The drivers left the bivouac in Iquique this morning knowing that at the end of today’s stage they would not be able to call upon their assistance crews tonight. Any necessary repairs would have to be carried out by the Team Peugeot-Total pairs of Stéphane Peterhansel/Jean-Paul Cottret and Cyril Despres/Gilles Picard.
Shortly after 05:00am Peterhansel made his way onto the liaison section that led to the 321km timed special stage. Once the 11-time Dakar champion commenced his day’s racing it became clear that he was in the mood to make up some time on his rivals as he looked to advance from his starting position of 10th overall. The Frenchman and his co-driver Cottret were the second fastest car through the day’s first checkpoint before eventually finishing the stage, as the storm hit, with the eighth best time of the day, matching their eighth place overall on the leaderboard.
Cyril Despres, among the 80 cars still in the race from the 137 that started in Buenos Aires, found himself in an advantageous position this morning thanks to his knowledge of marathon stages. The five-time Dakar bike champion knows exactly what it’s like to spend an evening away from his mechanics due to marathon days being a common feature of the two-wheel competition. Therefore Despres sensibly managed his race today to bring his car back to the bivouac in Uyuni with the 24th best time on the stage, a result that takes him up to 35th in the general classification from 48th yesterday.
Both Team Peugeot-Total race crews are on their own this evening to complete any repairs needed before heading off tomorrow for a 510km timed special stage that brings them back into Chile and the dunes of the Atacama Desert. This gives some rest to the Team Peugeot Total mechanics this evening; but it’s a strange feeling for them to be deprived of their usual charges in the Iquique bivouac.
Tomorrow: SS8 (Uyuni-Iquique): Sunday 11 / 06:30am local time – 808km (SS 510km)
Stéphane Peterhansel (#302): “We had hail for an hour and then some terrible storms, with waves of water. The roads were simply a quagmire: it was a nightmare. At one point, I thought it would be absolutely impossible for us to get out of the stage. With all the mud, it was very difficult for the two-wheel drive cars. This stage is going to stick in my memory: to only lose 10 minutes is a good achievement for us today!”
Cyril Despres (#322): “The car is fine this evening, despite the extreme conditions. I was coming out of a river crossing when I was hit by a wall of water. Then, as soon as we had got out, we went into another one: which was also full of water. I’m beginning to have more stories about seven stages on the Dakar than I did about the last seven years!”
Bruno Famin, Team Peugeot Total principal: “Both cars have survived a very tough day with no problems at all – not even a puncture – which is a great achievement. Once more, Stéphane has been in the hunt for a stage win, until the conditions slowed him down. We were obviously aware when we built a two-wheel drive car that traction would be an issue in particularly muddy or slippery places, but we stand by the concept. As for Cyril, between dunes at night and the storms in Bolivia, he’s learned so much about driving the car already that he’s definitely going to come back from this Dakar with plenty of experience. After speaking on the phone and checking the final road book with the crews, we have given them a list of things to check and a bit of homework in order to be as well prepared as possible for the second part of the stage.”