HA’IL, Saudi Arabia: Spanish veteran Carlos Sainz, the 2010 and 2018 champion, consolidated his overall lead of the Dakar Rally after winning Thursday’s fifth stage, his 34th stage victory in the race being held this year in Saudi Arabia.
The 57-year-old Mini driver clocked 3hr 52min 01sec around the 563km (353km special) route from Al Ula to Ha'il through boulder-strewn, sandy surroundings including hills occasionally scattered with desert grass.
Sainz finished 2min 56sec ahead of his main rival, defending champion Nasser Al-Attiyah of Qatar in his Toyota.
“We gained three minutes and pushed really hard at the end,” said Sainz.
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“I’m very happy because the car is working well. I had a flat tire at the start of the special, but I managed to make up the time.”
Sainz added: “I’m doing the best I can, but tomorrow when we open the route, maybe it will be completely different.”
Frenchman Stephane Peterhansel, nicknamed ‘Mr Dakar’ for his 13 victories in the marathon rally, followed up on his victory in Wednesday’s fourth stage with a third-placed finish, 6:11 off Sainz’s pace.
“It was a completely different kind of stage today. For us it was not really perfect because we had two punctures,” bemoaned Peterhansel.
“One at the beginning on a rock, but also one slow puncture on the dunes. I don’t know why, maybe just a small piece of bush.
“So we had to stop two times and the second time Carlos overtook me and I tried to follow him on the dunes and the camel grass, but he was really fast.”
Peterhansel’s multiple victories in the Dakar have come seven times in a car and six times on a motorbike, and he likened the final run-in to this stage as being on two wheels.
“Carlos pushed a lot and I was really at my limit to stay within reach of him. After that, we overtook Nasser and took three minutes from him before finishing all three cars together, like a final in motocross,” the Frenchman said.
There was a second stage victory in the motorbike category for Australian KTM rider Toby Price.
The defending champion came through the finish line 1:12 ahead of Chile’s Pablo Quintanilla, with his Husqvarna teammate Andrew Short of the United States in third (+2:31).
American Ricky Brabec (Honda) finished fourth to retain his lead of the overall standings, 9:06 ahead of Price.
“The race is really close,” Brabec conceded. “Toby made a few minutes on me, I caught (third-placed) Kevin (Benavides) today.
“Tomorrow could be tricky. We’ll have to see what happens.”
There was drama, however, as Britain’s Sam Sunderland, the 2017 winner and sixth overall at the start of the day, was forced to withdraw from the Dakar after what organizers called a “severe fall” halfway through the stage that left him with back and left shoulder injuries.
Friday sees the cavalcade take on a 830km sixth stage (477km special) from Hail to the Saudi capital of Riyadh before a rest day on Saturday.