Image: Ross Branch 2nd Friday 4th overall
Dakar 2021 reached its midpoint as crews arrived in Ha’il in the Saudi Arabian Desert anticipating a much deserved break following six days of flat out racing across the rocks and dunes. It’s been a dramatic and controversial week for the epic lockdown-busting race.
Friday was a tough but uncomplicated day as Carlos Sainz and Lucas Cruz dominated the cars aboard their Mini from Saudi home hero Yazeed Al Rajhi and Dirk von Zitzewitz' Hilux. Main interest was the fight for third between overall first and second cars Stephane Peterhansel and Edouard Boulanger’s Mini and Nasser Al Attiyah and Matthieu Baumel’s Proudly South African Gazoo Racing Toyota Hilux. Attiyah dropped back early on but clawed back to narrowly beat his arch rival home.
Jakub Przygonski and Timo Gottschalk had a good run to fourth in their Hilux ahead of South African stars, former quad podium finisher Brian Baragwanath and former lady biker Taye Perry in the SA-built Century CR6 Corvette. They fended off Nani Roma and Alexandre Winocq, who continued to impress on the new Hunter BRX’s maiden outing and Thursday’s winners, Giniel De Villiers and Spanish navigator Alex Haro Bravo in another Gazoo Hilux.
On two wheels, former South African champion, Botswana rider Ross Branch's Yamaha came in a strong second, just 13 seconds behind Joan Barreda, who took his third stage win of the year for Honda. Daniel Sanders’ KTM was third from Ricky Brabec on a Honda and three more KTMs ridden by Matthias Walkner, Toby Price and Sam Sunderland.
The week started with six South African cars in the top eight in Saturday’s Prologue as Al Attiyah laid down a marker for the Gazoo Hilux team, sharing the quickest time with Baragwanath in the Century CR6 Corvette, as former multiple SA Champion Branch went fourth quickest among the motorcycles. The first day of racing was to however prove a taste of things to come as many competitors who qualified well, ran into navigational issues from the get go.
Carlos Sainz came all the way from starting 28th to win the Mini, while Attiyah, Baragwanath and third man away Al Rajhi’s Hilux all immediately ran into trouble in the first sector. Organisers promised a navigational test. Most of the top ten qualifiers struggled to find their way.
Al Attiyah struck back to deliver a splendid hat trick over the next three days. Over Peterhansel and Sainz on Monday, while South African rookies Henk Lategan and Brett Cummings laid their claim for Dakar glory on day 3 as Sainz got lost on Tuesday. Attiyah made it three in a row on Wednesday as Peterhansel beat Lategan to second. Lategan then crashed the Hilux out and Sainz got lost again on Thursday as Giniel de Villiers held Baragwanath off to win. Sainz bounced back to win Friday.
Through all of that, Stephane Peterhansel may not have won a stage, but the 23-time winner used every iota of his nous and experience to lead the way by five minutes 53 seconds over Nasser Al Attiyah. Carlos Sainz sat third, 40 minutes adrift with Kuba Przygonski fourth from Nani Roma in the new Hunter BRX’s maiden outing, while teammate Sebastien Loeb has struggled.
Of the South African car crews, Baragwanath and Perry's SA-built Century sat a splendid sixth. Giniel De Villiers and Spanish navigator Alex Haro Bravo were ninth after an up-and-down week and Gazoo Hilux and teammates Shameer Variyawa and Brett Cummings were 35th following a troubled first week.
There was drama all week on two wheels as penalised riders who had starred on the previous day struggled every other day. Price took Sunday's win from a ninth place start. He was nowhere to be seen on Monday as Barreda beat Brabec, but they suffered on Tuesday as Price and Benavides rose through the pack to win. Barreda then beat Branch from the back on Wednesday but both struggled on Thursday as Benavides beat Flormino. And Barreda and Branch were back on top Friday!
Toby Price’s KTM somehow emerged through all that in the overall lead over Honda duo Kevin Benavides and Ignacio Conrejo Flormino with Ross Branch third for Yamaha, just 3 minutes 41 seconds off the yo-yo overall bike lead. Husqvarna rider Xavier de Soultrait sat fifth from Sam Sunderland’s KTM, Joan Barreda Bort’s Honda and Skyler Howes’ KTM. Ten minutes covered the top eight in the bike race.
In the other classes, Seth Quinteiro won Friday’s Light Car race in an RB OT3 on Friday. He beat the Can Ams driven by younger Al Attiyah brother Khalifa and Austin Jones, while Aron Domzala leads overall in another Can Am. Alexandre Giroud beat Gianni Enrico and overall leader Nicholas Cavigliasso in the quads on Friday. And Alais Mardeev led overall leader Dimitri Sotnikov and Airat Shabilov home to a Kamaz Truck 1-2-3, where Sotnikov leads Shibalov and Mardeev overall.
Saturday is a rest day but Sunday will start with a bang as crews tackle the first part of the Marathon stage in a 471 km race to Sakaka, where service assistance is not allowed overnight before 375 km of racing to Neom on Monday. Dakar 2021 ends at Jeddah after 4800 km of racing on Friday 15 January.