Early morning thick fog in the Peruvian desert caused the Dakar Rally's 345km fifth stage to be delayed Friday morning, as safety helicopters were unable to carry out their missions, but when the second half of the marathon stage did get under way, the action was intense from the get-go as crews raced from Moquegua to Arequipa in anticipation of Saturday’s rest day.
French rally legend Sebastien Loeb took a compelling car victory on the day in his Peugeot as Qatari Nasser Al Attiyah tightened his grip on the overall race aboard his proudly South African Toyota Hilux, and there was a sting in the tail of the two-wheeler race, while Southern Africa’s trio of bikers, two of them multiple South African Cross Country champions, Pretoria rider Kenny Gilbert on a Husqvarna and Botswana's Ross Branch (KTM) continued to deliver exceptional performances.
Branch has had a relatively clean run through the first half of the Dakar bar picking up a penalty for replacing a gearbox, but the man who lives in the Kalahari desert is right at home in the Peruvian dunes. The reigning South African champion once again rode within the top 20 on Friday en route to 23rd for the day to move up to 22nd overall and third among the rookies.
Gilbert has had a huge Dakar adventure, losing time to find waypoints on Tuesday before taking a major tumble on Wednesday and having to patch his Husqvarna up to make the finish, all while making up places along the way. Branch’s biggest rival on home soil, Kenny admits to riding at 80% in an effort to finish his first Dakar, but that has not prevented him from quietly climbing up the leaderboard, ending 31st on Friday to remain 27th overall and fourth among the rookies.
The third South African racing on two wheels, no-service crew Original class biker Stuart Gregory (KTM) also continued to impress, similarly climbing steadily up the leaderboard despite needing to service his KTM on his own out of a trommel every evening. Gregory ended 70th on Friday and sits 74th overall and 8th among the Original riders, also being the second best rookie among them.
Friday’s bike race proved close fought and most interesting, with Chilean Husqvarna Pablo Quintanilla quick out of the blocks on his Husqvarna, leading through to around mid distance, but it was Argentine Honda rider Kevin Benavides rider who arrived at the neutralisation point in front, ahead of Adrien van Beveren’s Yamaha, before Quintanilla struck back after lunch to lead teammate Andrew Short.
There was however a significant sting in the tail in a wild final sector as Quintanilla and Short lost time and British KTM rider Sam Sunderland, Frenchman Xavier de Soultrait (Yamaha) and Austrian Mattias Walkner (KTM) literally came out of the blue to top the day's podium. Sunderland had stopped to assist the injured Paulo Goncalves and jumped into the lead after race organisers reimbursed him for the time lost on Friday evening.
Spanish rookie Lorenzo Santolino (Sherco) was fourth from van Beveren, Short and Benavides as Quintanilla slipped out of the top ten, but remained second overall as he closed the overall deficit to leader, US rider Ricky Brabec down to just 2 minutes with Walkner close behind in third.
The car race once again delivered a clash of the titans. Spanish hero Carlos Sainz bounced back following his issues earlier in the week, to lead the way with Mini teammate Stephane Peterhansel closing from behind, himself coming under pressure from countrymen Sebastien Loeb and all of them in the crosshairs of overall leader, Qatari Nasser Al Attiyah’s South African built and run Toyota Hilux.
Loeb then powered ahead to take the advantage over overall leader Al Attiyah, who appeared to pace himself against his nearest rival Peterhansel as he drove home second, ten minutes off the pace. Peterhansel dropped to fourth behind Spanish Mini teammate Nani Roma with the Minis of Pole Jakub Przygonski and Frenchman Cyril Despres and Brit Harry Hunt’s Peugeot next up.
Giniel de Villiers took some time to overcome a difficult starting position as he climbed up though the pack run just outside the top ten after losing much time with crash damage earlier in the week. He ended up ninth behind SA-built Toyota teammate Bernhard Ten Brinke, while Sainz hit trouble and lost half an hour and Saudi flyer Yaseed Al Rajhi was in trouble in the stage.
That left Al Attiyah in a 25-minute overall lead over Peterhansel at the midpoint, with Roma third from Przygonski and Loeb 40 minutes behind in fifth, while Ten Brinke and de Villiers sat 14th and 18th respectively.
South African rookies Shameer Variawa and Zaheer Bodhanya were another crew wide-eyed by their Dakar adventure following another torturous day aboard SVR Red Lined Nissan Navara Thursday, but they were delighted to still be in the reckoning on Friday following a day that took a significant toll on the car grid - they however remained unaccounted for at the time of writing.
Argentine Nicolas Cavigliasso won his fourth of five quad stages on Thursday from his closest rival, countryman Jeremaias Gonzales Ferioli, while Russian Eduard Nikolaiev likewise consolidated his truck lead with a fourth stage win aboard his Kamaz. SA crew member Sean Berriman riding with German Mathias Behringer in a MAN meanwhile sat in 19th overall on Thursday and was still to finish on Friday.
There is no racing on Saturday as competitors take a well earned rest before the second half of Dakar 2019 starting Sunday with a race back up the Peruvian coast to San Juan de Marcona.