Sebastien Loeb (Prodrive) claimed his fourth victory of this year’s Dakar Rally on Tuesday, taking the honours on stage nine in Saudi Arabia, while Adrien Van Beveren (Honda) made it a French double by winning on the bikes.
Neither, however, has control of the overall standings with Carlos Sainz (Audi) leading the cars and Ricky Brabec (Honda) the bikes.
Stage nine included 400km of special stage, which featured dunes, complicated navigation and rocky, sandy tracks as the competitors made their way between Hail and Al-Ula.
Nine-time world rally champion Loeb clocked up his 27th stage victory on the Dakar, clawing back 4 minutes 14 seconds from Sainz.
But he remains provisionally 20min 33sec behind the 61-year-old Spaniard with time running out before Friday’s final stage finish in Yanbu, on the shores of the Red Sea.
“It was a good day for us, a long stage,” said Loeb.
“We had two punctures in the middle of the stage so at the end I had to be a bit careful and not have a third one.
“The gap is still big, but we still have three stages to go. So, we’ll see and we’ll continue to push for the next three days.”
Sainz, already a two-time winner of the Dakar, also had a tough time behind the wheel but found good support from his Audi teammates Mattias Ekstrom and Stephane Peterhansel.
“I waited for Carlos for six minutes at the start to escort him throughout the special, always 30 seconds behind just in case,” said 14-time Dakar winner Peterhansel.
“You could see that he was hesitating a few times, which isn’t too bad a thing when navigating, but it still wasn’t an easy stage.
“Carlos is in a good position. But Sebastien is capable of recovering 10 minutes a day, or even more if he goes to the limit.
“So I can understand why Carlos is stressed. Having 20-25 minutes is good, but if you have a technical problem, you lose them very quickly.”
Another Frenchman Mathieu Serradori (Century) took a fine third place, 4min 43sec behind Loeb.
– ‘No regrets’ –
French biker Van Beveren claimed his second victory on this year’s rally, finishing just 42sec ahead of his Honda teammate Ricky Brabec who retains the overall lead.
“It was a tough day but a good day,” said Van Beveren.
“It was really, really difficult. I tried my best, I really tried to be consistent and I think it was a good stage. I gave my all. I have no regrets for today.”
Brabec finished strongly and widened the gap to Ross Branch (Hero), running second in the overall, to 7min 9sec.
“I lost my rear brakes just before refuelling, so another stage with no rear brakes was a little bit tough but, all in all, it was good,” said Brabec.
The American now has his eyes on a decisive performance on Wednesday’s 10th stage when the competitors will have to slalom their way through the stunning monumental rocks of the Al-Ula region over a 371km special.
“I think tomorrow we’re probably going to have to open, but if I can clean up tomorrow…”
Van Beveren rode at the front for much of the stage, claiming bonuses that moved him up to third place overall, 11min 16sec behind Brabec.
The race was more complicated for Chile’s Ignacio Cornejo (Honda), who finished 10min 07sec behind Van Beveren and dropped to fourth overall, 13min 46sec off the lead.
Pablo Quintanilla was too far back to challenge the front two but completed a Honda sweep of the podium, finishing 4min 29sec behind the winner.
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