ALULA, Saudi Arabia: The Dakar Rally motorbike leader Jose Ignacio Cornejo was forced to retire after a fall on Wednesday with Friday’s finish line agonizingly close as Stephane Peterhansel appeared to have all but wrapped up the car title.
The veteran Mini driver enjoys a 17-minute cushion over Qatari Nasser Al-Attiyah and a record-extending 14th Dakar crown now looks his to lose.
“Being in the lead is the best position, but it’s also where you’ve got the most to lose,” said the 55-year-old Frenchman who was first crowned champion in 1991 before luckless Cornejo was even born.
The 26-year-old Honda rider, nicknamed “Nacho,” fell 252km into the 10th stage in Saudi Arabia and although he remounted and completed the stage he agreed with the rally’s medical department to retire for fear of having suffered concussion.
The Dakar was living up to its fearsome reputation for the second time in 24 hours as the Chilean rider was airlifted to hospital where he joined Toby Price, the Australian two-time champion who requires collarbone surgery after suffering a dreadful fall on Tuesday’s ninth stage.
Dazed after landing on his head Price received immediate assistance from defending champion Ricky Brabec, who won Wednesday’s stage to sit just 50 seconds adrift of his Honda teammate, Argentine Kevin Benavides ahead of Thursday’s penultimate and decisive 11th stage.
Price posted a photo of himself from his hospital bed giving a thumbs up on Twitter alongside an update on his medical condition.
“Finally broken my 30th bone! I don’t remember much but I’ve got a pretty sore collarbone, shoulder and hand and will need surgery for that...”
He expressed disappointment at not riding into Jeddah, and thanked Brabec and British rider Sam Sunderland for coming to his rescue.
“Thank you @Sundersam and @rickyB357 for stopping to help me, I was off with the fairies that day but I heard you took good care of me!“
Thursday’s 11th stage features a 464 kilometer timed special, the longest of the rally, from Al Ula to Yanbu.
Peterhansel is approaching the stage with plenty of caution as to what the rest of the Dakar may have in store for him.
He came in third on Wednesday, finishing in runner-up Al-Attiyah’s wing mirrors with the day’s honors going to Saudi driver Yazeed Al Rahji.
“Being in the lead is the best position, but it’s also where you’ve got the most to lose,” said Mini driver Peterhansel.
“The pressure never goes away, from the moment you wake up until you go to bed.
“When you do well in a stage, you know it would be a real pity to see all that effort go down the drain!“
For Al-Attiyah, “tomorrow will decide the Dakar.”
“It’s going to be a tricky stage, but we’ll do our best. There’s no strategy, we’ll just keep driving fast,” said the three-time winner.