Dakar Rally re­port

Peu­geot dom­i­nates on pure pace. By David Evans

Motor Sport News - - Front Page -

What a dif­fer­ence a year makes. Twelve months ago, Peu­geot was nowhere. Its 2008 DKR an em­bar­rass­ment to a mar­que that had ruled the Dakar be­tween 1987 and 1990. Last Satur­day, all of that was for­got­ten as Stephane Peter­hansel re­turned the French mar­que to the glory years with vic­tory.

Ahead of the event, talk among the Velizy squad was of a step, not a leap. The 2008 DKR had been se­ri­ously over­hauled through 2015, to the point that it was al­most un­recog­nis­able from its pre­de­ces­sor. And then Se­bastien Loeb joined the team.

The nine-time World Rally cham­pion raised ex­pec­ta­tion still fur­ther, but Peu­geot Sport di­rec­tor Bruno Famin was de­ter­mined to keep a lid on such op­ti­mism.

When Peu­geot an­nounced its Dakar ef­fort in 2014, eye­brows had been raised. The team was strik­ing off in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion with a rear-wheel-drive buggy-style ma­chine, the like of which hadn’t won since Jean-louis Sch­lesser’s Re­naultengined self-built Buggy ar­rived in Cairo from Paris via Dakar ahead of ev­ery­body else in 2000.

Since then we’d had seven years of Mit­subishi dom­i­na­tion with the Pa­jero, a Volk­swa­gen hat-trick with the Touareg and, most re­cently, a quar­tet of vic­to­ries for X-raid’s Mini All4 Rac­ing. What did those cars have in com­mon? Four driven wheels.

But, no, Peu­geot was adamant; space­frame chas­sis, enor­mous wheel travel and a gutsy three-litre twin turbo diesel en­gine send­ing ev­ery­thing to the rear was the way for­ward.

Cer­tainly, in the sand, the Peu­geot had the pace this time. With the taps open at pre-event test­ing in Morocco, the DKR had flown through the dunes.

But then El Nino ar­rived and changed ev­ery­thing. The weather phe­nom­e­non, based in the Pa­cific, was due into South Amer­ica at the same time as Dakar started. Af­ter care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion of the po­ten­tial di­ver­sion of emer­gency ser­vices, Peru with­drew from the route.

Four months out from the start, the Dakar or­gan­iser had to re­draw great swathes of the itin­er­ary. The most ob­vi­ous en­forced evo­lu­tion was to in­clude more mileage in Ar­gentina. The Peru­vian sands and deserts were re­placed by more Wrc-spec stages.

The Mini driv­ers rubbed their hands, know­ing full well the first half of the event would suit them and their to­tal­trac­tion far bet­ter. Yes, the Peu­geots might come on strong by Bo­livia – but would they even still be there that far into the first week? They cer­tainly would. Peu­geot’s first week was noth­ing short of as­ton­ish­ing. And so was Loeb.

Typ­i­cally hum­ble, Loeb had laughed off any talk of him run­ning at the front of the field on his – and co-driver Daniel Elena’s – first Dakar. But that’s pre­cisely what he did.

Af­ter a trou­bled start, with spectators in­jured at the event’s run­ning or­derde­cid­ing prologue and tor­ren­tial rain forc­ing the can­cel­la­tion of the first com­pet­i­tive test, the race fi­nally got un­der­way with stage two.

Even then, the planned 317-mile run from Villa Car­los Paz to Ter­mas de Rio Hondo was slashed to 240 miles as the storms con­tin­ued.

And that rain turned long sec­tions of the road into a mud­bath, with crews as ex­pe­ri­enced as for­mer win­ner Nani Roma stuck for 45 min­utes des­per­ately dig­ging his Mini out of the mud. The irony of the grip ques­tion was not lost as Peu­geot’s two-wheel-drive mo­tors went into an early 1-2. With Loeb lead­ing.

The French­man ex­tended that ad­van­tage with fastest time on three of the first four stages. His nat­u­ral abil­ity and all-round bril­liance was, it turns out, trans­fer­able to rally raids.

Team-mate Peter­hansel ad­mired Loeb’s style and early speed, but pointed to the sand up north in Bo­livia and out west to­wards the Chilean bor­der. It was there, in the guts of this event, that the out­come would be de­cided. How right he was. Loeb lost the lead on stage six – where he was forced to drive for close to 50 miles with the throt­tle jammed wide open – but won it back the next day. On stage eight, how­ever, his dream turned into a night­mare.

He went too quick into a dry riverbed and rolled the 2008 DKR.

The shunt was a size­able one and the hour lost as he and Elena fit­ted a new drive­shaft and patched the Peu­geot up would rule them out of con­tention.

Loeb said: “In quite a wide and fast river, I didn’t see a chan­nel and I came to­wards it at high speed. We hit the step as we came back out and that sent us into a se­ries of rolls. We got out and pulled ev­ery­thing apart and fi­nally we were able to get go­ing af­ter los­ing more than an hour. Our plan was al­ways to come here to get some ex­pe­ri­ence. OK, the first week went bet­ter than we ex­pected as we were in the lead. For this to hap­pen less than six miles from the fin­ish [of the stage] is frus­trat­ing, but that’s life. Now we have to carry on.”

An­other man who looked to be out of con­tention was Peu­geot’s other WRC me­gas­tar Car­los Sainz. The Spa­niard lost 14 min­utes with en­gine prob­lems on the first stage. But in typ­i­cal Sainz fash­ion, he re­fused to give up hope of a se­cond Dakar win and pushed his 2008 to the limit as he bat­tled his way back up the leader­board.

El Mata­dor’s ex­cep­tional fight­back was com­plete when he moved into the lead on the loop from Be­len to Be­len in the se­cond week. That stage was short­ened as tem­per­a­tures moved dan­ger­ously to­wards 50 de­grees, but Sainz kept his cool, mov­ing seven min­utes clear. Peter­hansel, by his own ad­mis­sion couldn’t keep pace with Sainz – even with­out suf­fer­ing a punc­ture and get­ting stuck in the sand. He dropped to se­cond.

The 10th stage, a 180-mile dash through the Fi­ambala dunes was seen as the fi­nal sig­nif­i­cant test of this event. Af­ter that, there was a three-day jaunt back down the world cham­pi­onship­spec stages into Villa Car­los Paz and onto the fin­ish in Rosario.

Get through Wed­nes­day Jan­uary 13 and ev­ery­thing would be fine.

De­spite an early punc­ture, Sainz was able to make the time back in the middle sec­tion of the stage and had piled an ex­tra seven min­utes onto his lead when disas­ter struck with trans­mis­sion fail­ure. He was towed out, but his race was run.

He, like so many be­fore him, had been cru­elly robbed by what re­mains the world’s tough­est rally.

Hav­ing en­joyed a 1-2-3 at the mid-event rest halt, Peter­hansel was now up front with­out his wingmen. Ad­mit­tedly, he did have an hour on near­est chal­lenger – last year’s win­ner Nasser Al-attiyah – but nerves were never far away in the Peu­geot camp, es­pe­cially when he ar­rived at a re­fuel not meant for the cars in stage 10.

He was cleared of any wrong­do­ing by the stew­ards, but con­cern would be etched into the faces of the Peu­geot team un­til the fin­ish… where deep joy broke out among the Parisians.

They’d done it, win­ning nine from 12 stages Peu­geot brought three from four cars home: first, sev­enth (for Cyril De­spres) and ninth for Loeb. Twenty-five years af­ter win­ning on a bike for the first time, Mr Dakar, Peter­hansel, got vic­tory num­ber 12 .

Be­hind them, Al-attiyah drove his heart out, never giv­ing up – not even when he rolled his Mini – on his way to se­cond. An­other for­mer win­ner, Toy­ota’s Giniel de Vil­liers was third, with Mikko Hir­vo­nen in fourth place in an­other Mini. Bri­tain’s Harry Hunt de­liv­ered an ex­cep­tional top-10 re­sult on his Dakar Rally de­but.

But the real cel­e­bra­tion was with Peu­geot. What a dif­fer­ence a year makes. ■

Un­usu­ally ver­dant back­drop for the win­ner Last year’s win­ner Al-attiyah was se­cond

RE­SULTS 2016 Dakar Rally

POS

DRIVER

1 Stephane Peter­hansel (Peu­geot) 2 Nasser Al-attiyah (MINI/BMW) 3 Giniel de Vil­liers (Toy­ota) 4 Mikko Hir­vo­nen (MINI/BMW) 5 Leeroy Poul­ter (Toy­ota) 6 Nani Roma (MINI/BMW) 7 Cyril De­spres (Peu­geot) 8 Vladimir Vasi­lyev (Toy­ota) 9 Se­bastien Loeb (Peu­goet) 10 Harry Hunt (MINI/BMW)

TIME 45h22m10s +34m58s +1h02m47s +1h05m08s +1h30m43s +1h41m06s +1h53m04s +2h01m45s +2h22m09s +3m11.30s

Loeb crashed out of the lead

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