Luc Alphand's rollercoaster of a Dakar Rally took one final plunge downhill on stage six, as his recovery towards the top five was halted by the loss of co-driver Gilles Picard.

The leg between San Rafa?l and Mendoza proved to be the final straw for the French Mitsubishi crew, after Picard was taken ill on the shortened route and forced the pair's immediate retirement just as Alphand was battling to make amends for the loss of half an hour with a fuel leak earlier in the event.

Picard was taken ill assisting the former downhill ski champion to put plates under a wheel when their car became stuck in the mud just 12km into the stage and, as a precaution, was airlifted to the bivouac in San Rafa?l for medical checks. He then underwent an electro-cardiogram test but, despite everything being normal, Alphand was unable to continue.

"Of course we are disappointed, but some things are more important than racing," a phlegmatic Alphand admitted, "I must admit I was very scared when I saw Gilles fall down.

"The mud hole was so deep, it was impossible for us to get out. Even the T4 truck had problems getting us out. We were very close to the road book, maybe only a few metres from the track, but it was our mistake that we were slightly wrong. That is racing."

The day's special stage had originally been shortened from 394km to 232km, and then to 178km, because of the risk of standing water caused by recent rainstorms, and event officials even sent a vehicle into the stage on Wednesday to monitor a river crossing which was already 80cm high. The decision was eventually taken to skip the section on safety grounds.

Alphand's exit leaves just two of the new Mitsubishi Lancers in the event, with team-mates Stephane Peterhansel and Joan 'Nani' Roma finishing the stage with the fifth and sixth fastest times to hold sixth and fifth respectively in the overall standings. The Repsol Mitsubishi Ralliart mechanics had only just completed work on Peterhansel's car before he was scheduled to leave the bivouac and head into the liaison section, the Frenchman having already incurred a 15-minute penalty in San Rafa?l on Wednesday evening for missing a time control.

"The mechanics did a fantastic job to get my car ready for this morning," Peterhansel admitted, "I really thought the rally was over yesterday after the accident. We are now in fifth position, but 'Nani' and I are some way behind the leaders, and it will not be easy at all to catch them. There are some long and difficult stages to come, but it is a case of finding where we can, perhaps, make up some of the time."