Dakar Rally report
Peugeot dominates on pure pace. By David Evans
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 secondRESULTS 2016 Dakar Rally
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