The return journey spared the competitors from the volcanic rocks, instead opting for the northern route from Al Duwadimi, which nevertheless shared some common ground with the previous visit. Over the majority of the 436kilometre special, the riders, drivers and crews had to be doubly vigilant, by carefully riding or driving to avoid punctures on the rocky portions and then by paying extreme attention to reading the roadbook when faced with the wealth of tracks in front of them. The strongest at this game was Adrien Van Beveren, who was able to adapt his position of stage opener for most of the day in order to win in AlUla.
Extreme endurance pushes the competitors to the limits in physical terms. The Dakar is also a motorsport race in which technical problems can have a hefty cost and where navigation difficulties call upon everyone’s grey matter, without forgetting, of course, riding skill, which can rarely make the difference on its own. To complete the canvas, strategy plays a primordial part, particularly when the horizon of the final finishing line is clearly in view. The countdown had already begun yesterday, with Adrien Van Beveren the butt of the joke which involved his rivals slamming on the brakes in order to set off well behind him today. The reaction of the man from North France, his pride wounded, was equal to his talent, even on terrain that is not best suited to him. He led the stage for much of the distance, navigating perfectly whilst maintaining a high pace, enabling him to regain his place on the provisional podium.
Van Beveren has fulfilled part of the bargain, but he still needs to make up 11’16’’ to catch his Honda team colleague Ricky Brabec. The American was the main beneficiary on the day’s stage, because his starting position (7th) allowed him to make quick progress to AlUla and to increase his lead in the general rankings. As the wind shifted in his favour, the Californian also took advantage of the navigation mistakes made by Ross Branch, who he now leads by 7’09’’. In total, Brabec has not won a single stage, but has finished 2nd, like today, on four occasions, which could be the winning formula for the 2024 vintage. When studying the timesheets in the car category, it becomes clear that the name of Carlos Sainz does not appear at the top for the stage rankings but has been very much at the summit of the general rankings since the evening of the 48 HR Chrono stage.
Today’s performance has not guaranteed him overall victory, but the strategy of driving the special in a convoy, protected by his teammates Mattias Ekström and Stéphane Peterhansel, give the impression that he was the leader of the Audi clan. He has kept his nearest pursuer at a reasonable distance, at a point in the race where each stage is a giant step towards success. Sébastien Loeb readily admits that in his position of hunter, his strategic options are now reduced to all-out attack, with its inherent amount of risk.
“Today we arrived at the end of the stage, I don’t know the classification, but the three Audis were all together. At the end it was normal. This morning, we started first, second and fourth. This morning also, after the start, I stopped for 6 minutes to wait for Carlos and I did all the stage behind him just in case of technical problems. For him it was not easy, because for the 200 km he opened the road and nobody did the navigation for him. I can imagine there is a lot of stress inside the cockpit”. – Stéphane Peterhansel
Today, the Frenchman won his fourth stage of the year (see Stat of the day) but flirted with danger because he had two punctures on the route to the finish, though he is still able to send a shiver down the spine of ‘El Matador’. With the conditions set fair, nothing seems impossible for the BRX Hunter driver, but the 20’33’’ which separate him from Sainz require him to drive very aggressively. Unlike his rival, he will have very little support from his team-mate Nasser Al Attiyah.
The five times winner from Qatar, who had to exit the special for the second consecutive day due to mechanical problems, will start very far behind Loeb… in the best-case scenario. Mitch Guthrie drove without such worries, because with a lead of approximately half an hour over Cristina Gutiérrez at the summit of his category, he was able to calmly watch Argentinean Nicolás Cavigliasso, assisted by his wife a Valentina Pertegarini, join the club of stage winners. Xavier de Soultrait, in the lead in the SSV category, can now also afford to adopt a strategy of controlling the race in light of the mishaps suffered by João Ferreira.
In the truck race, Gert Huzink produced the best time on the special, but without worrying Martin Macík, who sits atop an almost twohour lead over Aleš Loprais at the summit of the general rankings.
With the premature exit of reigning world runner-up Yazeed Al Rajhi in the Empty Quarter and the risk of not seeing world champion Nasser Al Attiyah at the start of stage 10, the points to be distributed in Yanbu to the two headliners of the 2023 season will be nil or negligible. Carlos Sainz and Lucas Moraes are currently in the best position to start their bid for the 2024 world title on the right foot. But nothing is decided yet, and above all it promises to be an extremely competitive season.
No more than one month after the finish of the first round, the W2RC caravan will already have a date with the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge, a race won on its last three editions by Yazeed Al Rajhi, Stéphane Peterhansel and Nasser Al Attiyah. By the time they arrive in Yanbu, these three contenders will have made a worse start than the future leaders, who will be announced on 19th January. The desire for revenge will be simmering under the helmets of many, including some of the big shots, in the very near future!