Today's 450-kilometre special stage was the last one to be held in the Atacama Desert. At the end of an extremely tricky test, Cyril Despres improved his overall position thanks to a promising 9th-fastest stage time that underlines his own improvement as a car driver even in the most challenging conditions. Stéphane Peterhansel was on the pace at the start of the stage, showing one again the potential of the PEUGEOT 2008 DKR but then encountered a technical problem that delayed him.
Following a comparatively leisurely start at 08:45, the drivers were faced with a daunting selection of sand dunes to negotiate, made even more difficult by high winds, with limited visibility due to dust and fesh fesh in the air. This fine, very powdery sand can bog a car down instantly and obscure the view ahead, rendering the role of the navigator absolutely crucial.
Despres was clearly reinvigorated by the rest day and set a good pace as the Dakar entered its closing week. The technique for riding over sand dunes on a bike is very different to how they are negotiated in a car, but the 40-year-old five-time Dakar bike champion patiently continued his learning curve to set 9th- fastest time and rise to 39th in the overall rankings (from 41st overall yesterday). This is his best-ever stage time in a car on the Dakar so far.
Peterhansel was not so lucky: despite setting an impressive rhythm at the start of the stage, he reported a broken hub carrier at kilometre 285, which meant that he had to stop and fix the problem. He was finally on the move again at 16:15, at reduced speed and finished the stage shortly before 19:00, with 54th-fastest time.
The route now takes the drivers back over the Andes, with altitudes that peak at 4,970 metres as they make their way back into Argentina. Tomorrow: SS10 (Calama-Salta): Wed. 14 / 6:36am local time - 859km (SS 358km).
Cyril Despres: (#322): "I hope this time is not just a one-off but the beginning of something more, all the way to the end. I actually didn't push much today but I didn't make any big mistakes either: we stopped a couple of times and lost between 10 to 12 minutes with a puncture and also a problem with the jack. We also stopped when we saw Stéphane to see if we could help him. We had a good rhythm and I'm happy: it would have been very easy to make a mistake today. It was important to get this experience and now I feel I can push a little bit more every day."
Jean-Paul Cottret (#302): "When we saw what the stage was like, we knew it was best to play safe but also that there was an opportunity: the road was bumpy and the navigation complex. We hit a rut that didn't seem so bad but it still caused a hub carrier to break. And we didn't have the tools to be able to use the spare part on Cyril's car, when he arrived. So we fixed it as best as we could, but we're still here tonight. It's frustrating as the stage win was possible, but you live and learn.
Peugeot Sport Director Bruno Famin: "Today was very encouraging for Cyril and Gilles who both did an excellent job, because in terms of navigation it was quite complicated. Cyril is improving day after day, which is very positive. Unfortunately Stéphane and Jean-Paul had a mechanical failure on the frontright hub carrier, which they were able to fix themselves and carry on slowly. It's a pity as they were very fast at the start of the stage, within 30 seconds of the leader. But that's racing. Despite this problem, we are very happy to come back to Argentina with two cars in good shape. The target is now to reach Buenos Aires.