110 Bikes, 41 Quads, 71 Cars and SxS, and 30 trucks have reached La Paz in Bolivia for the rest day, at the end of a week’s racing which witnessed a significant cull carried out by the dunes in the Peruvian deserts. Led by Argentinean Kevin Benavides, the bike race arrived in La Paz with a top 10 within less than thirty minutes of the leader. In the car category, the cull was more dramatic: French Stéphane Peterhansel has isolated himself from most of his rivals, but now is faced with a duel against his teammate Carlos Sainz, his nearest pursuer in the general standings.
Ín the bikes, a wind of change blew through the bike category during the first part of the Dakar 2018. The specific sequencing of the difficulties, with stages including extremely demanding dunes, made it possible for the specialists to stand out. Such was the case for title holder Sam Sunderland, until an awkward landing after a jump resulted in another withdrawal.
In particular, the sensation was made by Adrien van Beveren, who had already given promising signs on his first two Dakar rallies. He has further improved his status this past week in Peru, part of which he spent at the top of the general standings. A sand specialist, the Frenchman, accompanied by Yamaha teammate Xavier de Soultrait, took advantage of terrain best suited to him.
On arriving in Bolivia, Van Beveren lost first place to Kevin Benivades, whose comeback is living up to the hopes of his aficionados, already delighted to see an Argentinean lead the bike category for the very first time. The man from Salta has become the key asset for the Honda team, who can still count on Joan Barreda (in 4th position). During his two special stage victories, the Spaniard demonstrated that he is still the quickest in the pack... but he is also one of the most vulnerable. "Bang Bang" fell foul of fortune with a major navigation error on SS03: If he makes another one, he will no longer be in the reckoning for overall triumph.
There are still many legitimate pretenders and KTM are far from giving up the ghost. Matthias Walkner (in 3rd) is displaying exemplary consistency, while Toby Price (in 5th) is efficiently making sure of the essentials. To extend its domination over the event, the Austrian firm is also counting on Antoine Meo (in 7th), who won the last special before the rest day.
In the quads, Ignacio Casale started the rally like a boss, with three consecutive stage victories that caused panic among his rivals. Title holder Sergey Karyakin, perhaps a little too eager to avoid losing ground, exited the race with a broken arm, whilst Rafal Sonik fractured his shin. However, for the Chilean, who let his expertise in the dunes do the talking, the road is not yet totally clear and the Argentineans Jeremias González and Pablo Copetti could take advantage of riding in front of a home crowd next week.
In the cars, in general, the gaps open up during the second week, but this year the unforgiving Peruvian dunes put paid to Nani Roma’s hopes of victory when he left the rally injured after rolling his car over and over on the way to San Juan de Marcona. Sébastien Loeb was very prominent following his 2nd place in 2017, but abdicated from the race due to a mistake and crash that put his copilot out of service in the Tanaka Desert, the day after his 10th and most probably last stage victory on the Dakar! Cyril Despres is still in the race, but due to the hours he lost repairing a wheel ripped off after hitting a rock on the 4th stage, he is definitively distanced.
In the X-Raid team, Mikko Hirvonen and Yazeed Al Rajhi also suffered severe mishaps. As for Toyota, even Nasser Al Attiyah and Giniel De Villiers have lost precious dozens of minutes, which compromises their chances of outright triumph in Cordoba. In the meantime, Peterhansel has proceeded smoothly and the others made one blunder after another. With his copilot Jean-Paul Cottret, the crew enjoyed a faultless week. The road to a 14th title seems wide open for him... but nothing is ever that simple on the Dakar.
After all, while he has distanced most of his rivals (Ten Brinke is 3rd, 1 hour and 20 minutes behind, whilst Al Attiyah in 4th trails by 1 hour and 24 minutes), he still has to win a duel with Carlos Sainz, lying in wait “only” 27 minutes back. After five consecutive withdrawals, “El Matador” seems to have regained his consistency. He finished the first week of the Dakar with a thirtieth career stage victory on the rally. Next week promises to be exciting.
Among the 11 Side-by-Sides that started in Lima, 10 are still in the race at La Paz. The category is dominated by the two Can-Am buggies driven by Brazilian Reinaldo Varela and Peruvian Juan-Carlos Uribe. Frenchman Patrice Garrouste in his Polaris buggy for the X-Treme Plus team is the other man in the provisional podium places. To be continued...
In the trucks, the question of whether the Kamaz trucks cannot be beaten is regularly asked on the Dakar. For the moment, it would indeed seem that they cannot, with the general standings dominated by Eduard Nikolaev. The two times winner has stamped his authority on the race, with three stage victories out of six. However, he is not enjoying the usual collective support from his team-mates. Indeed, Federico Villagra is on his tail (52 minutes behind, all the same!). The Argentinean has won two specials and is showing the sort of racing maturity that could witness him causing problems for the Russian rally leader.
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