The Red Bull Desert Wings team maintained its stranglehold on the 2016 Dakar Rally as the event headed into a well-needed rest day at the foot of the Andes.
Violent storms returned to the event during a turbulent seventh stage that saw more lightening quick times set by the pace-setting Red Bull-Peugeot combinations, but heavy rain on the Bolivia/Argentina border did nothing to dampen the speed of Carlos Sainz as he ensured the Peugeot 2008DKR16 was the fastest car on the stage for a sixth consecutive day.
“After the problem we had on the first day, we're happy with today's good result,” Sainz admitted, “We were stopped for nearly 15 minutes on the first day and nearly knocked out of the race. We've been pushing hard since then to catch up and win a stage. Now we've done that - and we could've have more already - our strategy doesn't change. We're just looking to keep up our speed.”
Despite the Spaniard's blistering pace, the sight of team-mate Sébastien Loeb in the rear-view mirror was ever-present as the Frenchman came home just 38 seconds later to place second on the stage and retake the overall lead. Loeb and co-driver Daniel Elena led through the first part of the special stage, clocking in two minutes ahead of the rest, but had to battle back from turbo problems and a slight navigational hitch on the second section in order to reclaim top spot from team-mate Stephane Peterhansel.
“I was super motivated this morning to take the lead back,” Loeb commented, “We didn't manage to do everything we wanted, but we're in the lead and that's what counts.
“The first part of the special was awesome, we went at full tilt and opened a big gap, but then we had engine trouble before the start of the second sector. We lost our focus a bit and made a navigational mistake, but the engine started working properly again and we had the afterburners on for the rest of the stage. It was a turbo management problem, but it looks fine now.”
The Dakar debutant's position at the top of the overall classification is guaranteed for the rest of the weekend with all competitors getting a well-earned day off today [Sunday] at the halfway point of the rally. Peterhansel sits second overall, the eleven-time Dakar winner now 2min 22secs behind Loeb, with Sainz a further 2min 28secs back in third as Team Peugeot-Total hold a clean sweep of the podium positions.
Former two-wheel star Cyril Despres continued his own four-wheel education with a fine sixth place finish on the stage at the wheel of the fourth Peugeot, while defending Dakar champion Nasser Al-Attiyah kept his foot down as he attempted to stay in touch with the trio of Peugeots ahead of him. The Qatari is hopeful of turning the tables during the Dakar's second week as he trails Loeb by 17min 36secs despite sitting fourth place overall.
“We lost less time to the Peugeots today, so we're rather happy,” Al-Attiyah reasoned, “All we can do now is attack. Taking the fight to the Peugeots will be tough, but it looks like even they can run into trouble. There are some extremely hard stages coming. I did my best throughout the week, even behind them, and, right now I'm far ahead the other 4x4s. I'll try to defend my position and finish on the podium, which would be quite an accomplishment.”
While there is no racing against the clock on Sunday, there is little rest expected on the 'rest day', with competitors putting in long shifts alongside their engineers and mechanics to ensure that they and their machines are ready for the 4000km that still stand between themselves and the finish in Rosario this time next week.