The long-awaited return to the Red Sea coast has definitely made everyone, involved in the race, happy. A pleasant sea breeze and a calming sound of waves allowed to forget for a short time about the stressful ten-day journey through Saudi Arabia. During this time the rally caravan managed to cross the country from the west to the east and from the south to the north and once again arrive at the coast of a water “reservoir” that is a part of the Indian Ocean. More than 5800 km of the race became a history, and the desert winds quickly swept away thousands of treads left by sports vehicles.
Soon there will be no traces of cars in the place where the next bivouac of the Dakar 2021 is located. In a few years, in the northwest of Saudi Arabia will appear a city of the future – Neom, which recently is talked about with increasing frequency. Ambitious plans for a person-centered urban environment were announced by the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on the day the racers arrived in Neom. The Line project is a 170-kilometer belt of residential areas of the future without cars and roads, built around nature, that will provide more than a million residents with 100% clean energy, free from air pollution.
The Dakar may become like that in the distant future as well. For the second year in a row, Gert Huzink enters the start of the race on a hybrid truck, and Martin van den Brink also plans to use a traditional explosion engine with an electric motor in 2022. Also, a number of companies are developing an environmentally friendly power unit. A year later, totally-electric buggy Peugeot 3008 DKR is to take part in the rally-marathon, and already in 2024 this vehicle will be equipped with a hydrogen engine.
But all this is still the future, and the present of the Dakar is taking place on Tuesday. The athletes did not have time to catch their breath after the exhausting two-day marathon stage, when the rally organizers prepared a new challenge, marking the ninth stage as one of the most difficult at the Dakar 2021. It would seem, what else could surprise the racers after the passed stone jungle, dunes, tens of meters high, and endless deserts of the Arabian Peninsula with its complicated tracks? That’s right, the most difficult navigation and constant change of landscape scenery with many stones and risk of losing dozens of minutes due to puctured wheels and searching for the right course.
The 465-kilometer loop special stage in Neom started with a short and dangerous stretch along the Red Sea, offering racers an incredible panoramic view and reminding African times of the Dakar, when the legendary rally-marathon finished on the shores of Lake La Rose in the capital of Senegal, Dakar. Already after 11 km, ideal to carry out a stage of the World Rally Championship, the real difficulties began for bikers and crews: 61% of gravel, 30% of sand, and the remaining 9% – rocky trial and asphalt. A short sandy canyon in mountainous terrain has been replaced by tens of kilometers of fast and winding gravel and sandy tracks in dried-up river beds with a constant change of racing pace. The danger also came from the thick dust: not everyone dared to enter the overtaking trajectory, as the risk of getting into an accident was too high.
Further it became only more difficult. The rally channel gained altitude, rising from 600 to 1200 meters above the sea level, and 236 km became a gateway to the mountains, which immediately led to a drop of the maximum speed to minimum values. The trucks’ engines worked at their limit, but the reserve power allowed to move forward confidently, leaving next kilometers of challenge behind. Narrow and winding roads, full of stones, raised attentiveness of crews to the limit. It was important to avoid stops and to estimate that in front there would be no congestion of cars and buggies that had started earlier. Another change of the landscape took the line of vahicles into a large sandy valley with complicated parallel tracks and further return to the mountains. The exhausting day ended with a finish line on the Red Sea coast.
Harsh conditions of today’s stage are evidenced by massive problems among the leading racers: after falling from bikes, Toby Price and Luciano Benavides were taken to the hospital by helicopter, Ross Branch’s engine went out of order; Nasser Al-Attiyah punctured several wheels on his car, the same as Carlos Sainz, who additionally faced with breakdown of brakes; 100 km before the finish line broke down Mathieu Serradori, who had been going for the best result;and it took Sergei Kariakin several hours to repair his buggy.
The task of KAMAZ-master team once again was a reliable finish. Having a solid margin ahead of their rivals, loss of a few minutes was not crucial. Having started in a tight bundle, four Russian trucks overcame the entire route without any special difficulties, arriving first at the destination point. The first victory at the stage in his career was won by the Czech driver Martin Macik, who took the lead after 250 km – 5 hours 5 minutes 54 seconds. Crews of Airat Mardeev and Dmitry Sotnikov were more than two minutes behind, and in the ranking table they were separated by 10 seconds.
Dmitry Sotnikov, pilot of crew No 507: “It turned out a very difficult day. For the first time at this Dakar, it was full of stones, there were a lot of off-road sections and rocky channels, in some places a real trial, where a truck did not fit into the track. We had to be patient and be very careful with the wheels. At the beginning of the special stage, due to difficult navigation, we tried to drive accurately, but everything went smoothly – we let Aliaksei Vishneuski and Ignasio Casale ahead. Because of the dust, we let them go a little forward, and after 100 km we met them changing wheels. In the end we returned to a clean track and could win back some positions. On the second part of the route we were went together with Anton Shibalov.“
The fierce battle for the third place in the general classification continued between the crews of Airat Mardeev and Ales Loprais today. The Russians started just 30 seconds behind and quickly caught up with their rival. But they could not overtake him for a long time. The disappointment of Mardeev at the finish line was understandable: the lost time may have cost him victory at the stage.
Airat Mardeev, pilot of crew No 509: “An interesting special stage, a lot of stones and channels, sandy roads. The organizers put us very far in the starting list. We are in top 20, but started in the fourth ten. We have to catch up with slower crews from other categories and it is dangerous to overtake in the dust. We started in a tight group 30 seconds behind Ales Loprais, quickly caught up with him and drove right behind him, but again he did not let us overtake for a long time. We drove 20 kilometers like this. At that moment Martin Macik appeared behind, we let him ahead and so the three of us went on. On a rocky plateau we overtook both of them and drove at a good pace. We set the task not to puncture wheels, were careful a bit. The day went well, the main thing is that the team kept its positions in the general classification.”
Ales Loprais, pilot of crew No 504: “There was a car in front of us and Airat simply did not see it. I always miss the guys from KAMAZ-master, you can ask Andrey Karginov, Eduard Nikolaev. The guys simply did not see what was in front of me. Today there was a lot of dust on the track, and I was driving very carefully in the stones.”
Ales Loprais finished the day with the fourth result, followed by Andrey Karginov and Anton Shibalov.
Andrey Karginov, pilot of crew No 500: “The day was long: challenging, killing, navigational. Basically there were river beds and sandy roads, a lot of stones, and the air was full of dust. Everyone today drove approximately the same, but those, who got less dust, were in the lead. We had to slow down almost to a full stop, because nothing was visible due to the dust. Today we backed up Airat Mardeev and let him overtake to insure him. Unfortunately, we punctured a wheel at the very beginning, but the pumping coped with it. Already in the neutralization zone on the asphalt we replaced the wheel and continued to move towards the finish line. I wish there were more such interesting racing days.”
Anton Shibalov, pilot of crew No 501: “At the very beginning, the navigation was very difficult, I didn’t even understand how we were able to get out of there. Bravo to the navigators who did their job and we didn’t get lost. The whole special stage was stony, a terrible trial with huge and sharp stones. Somewhere the distributor was caught, the brackets bent. We can say that we reached the finish line by a miracle. If the bolts were cut off, we could have left the distributor on the route. If it had fallen out, it would have been a fiasco. Thanks to the truck, it drove us to the end. It is good that we didn’t puncture wheels. The special stage was working, difficult. Usually long stages are faster, but today it was not like that.“
The rest of the crews began to lag behind in mountainous areas. Aliaksei Vishneuski, who had the best time on the 198th- km waypoint, was almost 17 minutes behind the leader after 80 km due to two punctured wheels. At the 239th km, Ignasio Casale headed the virtual table, but he also faced a wheel change, losing about 10 minutes, and already in the neutralization zone repair works “added” more than an hour to the rankings of the crew. As a result, the lag of more than 100 minutes at the finish line and lost ninth place in the overall standings.
On Wednesday the Dakar contestants will have a 583-kilometer stage, 342 km of which will become a special stage along the route Neom – Al Ula.
Truck category. Ranking of the 9th stage. Top-10
|7||506||Martin VAN DEN BRINK||RENAULT||05:28:06||00:22:12|
Truck category. General classification after the 9th stage. Top-10
|2||501||Anton SHI BALOV||KAMAZ||38:27:52||00:45:03|
|8||506||Martin VAN DEN BRINK||RENAULT||40:42:43||02:59:54|
FOTO: DPPI,Red Bull Content Pool