Slide Show >>Luc Alphand and his navigator Gilles Picard now have control of their own Dakar destiny after setting the fastest time on the stage 12 special in Mali as the 2006 Dakar cross-country rally competitors enter their fifth country: Guinea, the first visit to the country in 20 years of the Dakar rally.
"My goal was to catch up Giniel, to gain a few minutes on him, just to increase a bit my advantage at the overall. Since I shot a tree two days ago, I no longer thought about about overall victory," said Alphand.
Alphand had a bit of assistance from his teammate Stephane Peterhansel, who had held the lead since the eight stage and was on his way to a successful defence of his 2005 Dakar title in the car category, with a lead of 25 minutes, before today's disaster struck the Frenchman.
"There are still two stages to complete [Alphand was referring to the fact that the final stage at Lac Rose is really considered a ceremonial stage], and I only have a little twenty minutes advantage on Giniel [de Villiers]. One or two punctures, a tree, a stone...I know that anything can happen. But tomorrow, I will have the advantage of starting first. The others will have to attack to overtake me. I won't lie. I am very pleased to take the lead, even if it is sad for Peterhansel."
Peterhansel ran into a tree with his Mitsubishi Pajero at the 278km mark, damaging the left rear wheel. He fixed it the best he could to continue past the second checkpoint but had to stop again just 16 km later and wait for the assistance vehicle to make final repairs due to rear suspension and transmission problems caused by the accident. The French driver finally made it to the finish line but lost nearly three hours, dropping him to fourth overall in the standings.
"I said in Nouakchott that anything can happen at any time on this race," said Repsol Mitsubishi Ralliart Team Director Dominique Serieys. "Stephane had a collision with a tree, but Luc did a great job for us. We had a lead of over one hour, but then we had navigation trouble and both our drivers hit a tree, so now Luc must be very careful. I am pleased that he is first on the road on Friday. It means he will stay out of the dust. Nani will need to try and protect Luc without taking any risks."
The 368km special, on the river tracks with a variety of configurations along the way and lots of vegetation to maneuver through, was the final stage in Mali. The liaison of 307km took the riders and drivers into Labe, Guinea. Dakar is now only three days away and the dream of reaching Lac Rose is becoming reality.
Alphand has the edge over Volkswagen's de Villiers by 20:31, and the Touareg driver has to pull out all the stops to overtake Alphand, who last held the car overall on stage seven. The South African racer won the last two special stages and would need to repeat that feat on the next two. Adding to the pressure is the fact that Mitsubishi has been the dominant manufacturer and Volkswagen has been aiming for the Dakar championship.
"We are now second -- a fantastic feeling after a stage where it was very easy to make mistakes," said de Villiers. "The road book was very inaccurate and we were the first car into the stage today after winning yesterday, but everything went well for us."
Of course Alphand must drive conservatively and yet quick enough to keep de Villiers at bay. Neither has won a Dakar title, but both have an opportunity to taste the victory on January 15th.
Today, the Frenchman was the fastest, ahead of X-Raid BMW driver Guerlain Chicherit by close to one minute. Alphand's fellow countryman did not gain overall positions due to the close finish by the top of the car leaerboard in today's stage.
"We have been attacking for the whole stage, even if we had some problem in the first kilometres. I punctured twenty kilometres after the start, so I lost about 8 minutes. Then it became very rocky," said Chicherit. "So I slowed down to avoid to puncture for a second time. And then, I drove fast. It was a very dangerous stage, I almost capsized in every turn."
Even with today's tracks, the route and many complaints the past days over the roadbook by the drivers, Chicherit expressed his delight on the his run today: "It was a bit like in Finland. I was really at ease and soon, I felt that we were clocking a good time. I learnt that we were second as I arrived in Labe."
De Villiers was third fastest followed by Touareg teammates Bruno Saby and Mark Miller.
Nani Roma now holds third overall in his Pajero, with Peterhansel fourth followed closely by American driver Miller, in his debut with the factory Volkswagen team, in fifth.
For the Schlesser-Ford team, Jean-Louis Schlesser sits sixth with Carlos Sousa seventh for the Nissan Dessoude team. Chichert for BMW is shown ninth overall. Volkswagen and Mitsubishi hold down six of the top ten slots.
Cyril Despres may have a dislocated shoulder, an injury he incurred with a tumble on stage six, but he never gives up and somehow deals with the pain every day. Today the French rider notched his fourth win in the 28th edition of Dakar, two of them after the injury.
"It was a very nice stage, a bit like on the Tour de France. On the liaison, there were thousands of people. What a beautiful country! The special itself was technical, with holes and branches on the ground," commented today's winner. "There were also a few rivers to cross, but nothing serious, just deep enough to refresh my feet. I know that I can't easily gain the time I lost. And being second in Dakar with a wrist tenonitis, it is definitely not too bad."
The 2005 bike champion rode his Gauloises Racing KTM faster than the bike leader Marc Coma by 1:45. Coma, however has a commanding lead of nearly 40 minutes on his Repsol KTM. Still, in Dakar, all is not said and done until the drivers/riders enter the city.
"It was very dusty today and the tracks looked really like the one we had in Mali. The ground was supposed to be in laterite, but there was many holes. So, it was quite dangerous," Coma said. "I rode at my pace, without attacking. I will only have to check a few things, but nothing serious."
American Chris Blais moved up in the standings to fourth with a repeat of yesterday's performance, taking the third-fastest time on today's stage. Two other riders who have come alive in the closing stages finished in the top five again today.
Blais was quite happy with his run today and admitted he had to slips: "I rode at my pace, without taking risks. But I fell twice, what usually never happen to me. The first fell was a little one at very low speed. And on the second one I slipped on the side of the road, but without any serious consequences. I am fourth at the overall ranking. It would be fantastic if I could still be fourth in Dakar."
Jean De Azevedo, also on a KTM like Blais, again finished directly behind the American. The rider from Brazil was fourth quickest. Following de Azevedo across was yesterday's third fastest rider, today Jonah Street was fifth for the American contingency on the dominant KTM bikes.
Overall behind the two Dakar title holders from past events are Giovanni Sala, Coma's teammate. The Italian rider is one hour and 45 minutes adrift of Despres. Carlo de Gavardo, another of the Repsol riders slotted fifth in the standings.
De Gavardo had an incident today at the water crossing when the water entered the engine, costing the Chilean time to clear it out. With Blais jump up in the standings, not only did de Gavardo drop a place but so did Pal Anders Ullevalseter for the Scandinavia team. Third through sixth are in a tight contest and the positions could easily change tomorrow and again on the final two days.
Hans Stacey is now three-for-three in the heavy truck category, the Norwegian was only 12 minutes ahead of Firdaus Kabirov in today's special. Stacey has given his Exact-MAN team four stage wins this year against the dominant Kamaz 4911s, proving that the MAN TGA 4X4 can run at the top.
"It has been a long day, with very technically demanding stage in the first kilometres. I had to be safe. Once again I hit a branch which broke my front window. I didn't take too many risks since I really want to be in Dakar," explained Stacey. "What's more, in the last 50 kilometres, we were about to run out of water."
However, even with his victory, four-time champion Vladimir Tchaguine still has over a three-hour edge to secure his fifth Dakar title. The Russian driver finished third on today's stage behind his teammate.
"The arrival to Labe was fantastic, with this incredible crowd which came to welcome us. It hope it will help me keep a good memory about this stage, because so far my last memory is the loss of the rally here in 1996. But it won't happen this year. I will control the end of the race to make sure I will win in Dakar," commented Tchaguine.
Stacey did gain a few extra bit of time to remain in front of Kabirov. The Dutchman and the Russian have three stages left to duke it out for second overall. Of course if Tchaguine runs into problems, like he did on the seventh stage, the gap between the top three could be reduced.
"I am very happy about this result since I left Lisbon with one main goal: winning a stage. And I won four stages. Now, I will protect my place even if I will try and gain a few minutes on Kabirov," said the Dutch driver.
Andre de Azevedo had the fourth quickest time, keeping the Brazil team in fourth overall. Today, Franz Echter was fifth for the Exact-MAN team, moving from ninth to eighth overall in the truck standings.
Tchaguine is interested by race for second as he believes that will keep the pressure off of him: "Actually I can afford losing 18' today on Stacey. On the other hand, the fight between Stacey and Kabirov will be interesting until the end. So tomorrow, I will content myself with following my team mate to assist him in case of trouble."
Stage 13 on Friday the 13th will be tricky with very little overtaking along the tracks. The highest elevation on the route will be reached tomorrow in the mountain ranges.