The changing face of the 2006 Dakar cross-country rally happened today as the riders/drivers entered Mauritania. The start began at night as the competitors left Tan Tan, Morocco, a first for the Dakar event, adding an extra challenge on one of the normal route that takes them to the bivouac in Zouerat.
The 444km special was over wide open area that allows them to speed away in the darkness before they came across the very sandy portion of the route. Again, navigation was a key element as the area is empty of what one could use as points to guide by.
The car competition was hot with two Dakar champions racing side-by-side: Jean-Louis Schlesser and Stephane Peterhansel. Schlesser had the upper hand as they clocked in at checkpoint 2, Carlos Sainz and Giniel de Villiers had overtaken Peterhansel and were catching Thierry Magnaldi. It was anyone's race to win or lose.
Driving a Schlesser-Ford buggy, Magnaldi notched his first Dakar stage victory in a car, besting his team owner by nearly three minutes. Schlesser moved from eighth to fourth overall with today's run, Magnaldi to made a move, from 10th to eighth.
"At the very beginning of the rally, I was afraid to need too much time to get used to the car. But I soon realised that I had the car to win a stage," expressed a delighted Magnaldi. "We could even have won earlier in the rally. Actually, it was more than time, since things might change with the first big dune stages. I am very happy about this win, since it is my first victory with a car on the Dakar."
Volkswagen's de Villiers captured third fastest time and took over the car category lead today. His teammate Jutta Kleinschmidt was close behind in her Touareg 2 prototype to take fourth. The Frenchman's jump from fifth to the top of the leaderboard over Sainz also bounced Kleinschmidt down a notch to third overall.
Volkswagen now holds a one-two-three overall with Luc Alphand dropping out of the top three with his fifth place special finish. The Mitsubishi Pajero teams continued to have their ups and downs on this year's Dakar. Defending title holder Peterhansel has a good run going but ended up following Alphand across the finish line.
Following the two Pajero's across were two Touareg's belonging to Sainz and Bruno Saby. Yesterday's stage winner Mark Miller slotted 10th today, adrift of the X-Raid BMW driven by Guerlain Chicherit.
For the bikes, the news was stunning when it was learned that the 2005 bike winner Cyril Despres crashed near the 273km mark. The Frenchman repaired his KTM bike and continued, taking the seventh quickest time, yet kept his second overall in the standings due to today's very tightly fought outcome.
The Frenchman went to medical for treatment of a possible broken left collarbone. It was determined to be dislocated, Despres hopes to be able to carry on his ride to Dakar and still has the desire to repeat last year's performance.
"I have dislocated my collarbone. The doctors say it is a stage 2 dislocation. I am fine," explained Despres. "The crash happened at km 273, 50 km before the refuel point. I do remember hitting some camel grass and the back end kicking up."
Today's stage was wide open at the start of the special and the top bike riders were seen racing in packs and no one giving ground. At CP1, Isidre Esteve Pujol was leading with the fastest time with Marc Coma and Despres close behind, again showcasing the top three in the standings.
Ruben Faria and Carlo De Gavardo were pressing hard to stay up with the pack but lost time finding their way to the first checkpoint. As the riders headed to CP2, it was Coma, Esteve Pujol, Despres and de Gavardo trading off the top slot. Andy Caldecott was flying solo nearly 10 minutes adrift.
Due to the heavy fall that Despres took, Coma came to a stop as did Esteve Pujol to aid their KTM compatriot. Coma actually was the one who turned on the safety alert beacon but Despres was able to shake off the initial dizziness from the fall and the three took off riding together at reduced speeds.
"Isidre and Marc arrived and helped me," said Despres. "I don't have the feeling that I made a big mistake. I do hope that I will be fine tomorrow morning. I couldn't go home without at least trying to ride. My feelings are very mixed. On the one hand, it is 11 months training down the drain and that is obviously very frustating. On the other hand, it could have been a lot worse."
That opened the door for the final stage at the finish line, Repsol's KTM riders came across one-two, de Garvardo extended his lead at CP2 to set the best time on the sixth stage today -- his first victory in this year's Dakar.
"We entered the real Africa today with plenty of off-road. We had to be very careful. It is getting tough day after day but I feel really good," said de Garvardo. "I did not ride too fast because I wanted to keep cautious on any kind of danger."
Sneaking up on the top group was Giovanni Sala (Repsol KTM) who squeezed out a flying time at the end to secure second on the stage.
Gauloises Racing's Esteve Pujol secured third on his KTM and even with Despres time lost and injury, the Spaniard remained third overall. Esteve Pujol's countryman and rival Coma kept the overall bike lead with a fifth fast time today.
Pal Anders Ullevalseter was the major surprise of the day, the Scandinavia KTM rider came across the line with the fourth quickest time of the day, moving him up one position on the leaderboard into eighth.
Australian racer Caldecott took sixth on the stage followed by Despres and Yamaha's ace David Fretigne. Expect for the top five in the standings (Coma, Despres, Esteve Pujol, de Garvado, Caldecott), the leaderboard saw many changes.
Fretigne moved up to sixth, Sala to seventh, Ullevalseter to eighth and Jaroslav Katrinak (KTM) to ninth. While David Casteu (KTM) slipped from sixth to tenth who had to stop to repair a meltedrear mousse.
Casteu was smiling before the start, "Because the team treats us so well, I was able to go to sleep at 8:00 PM. I've slept for close to 5 hours non stop. It's perfect!"
And when the day ended, the Frenchman admitted his own error: "It was my fault, I was too much in a hurry to catch Andy Caldicott, who started just ahead of me, and melted my rear mousse."
Six for six! The lead in the Truck category was extended today, now Vladimir Tchaguine holds a margin of two hours. Second in the overall which was really not unexpected was the Russian's fellow countryman and Kamaz teammate, Firdaus Kabirov who would like to make up the ground to defend his title.
Tchaguine is chasing his fifth Dakar championship this year and appears unstoppable.
Tatra driver Karel Loprais was overtaken today by Kabirov by the Kamaz power and slipped from second overall to third with a fifth place stage finish. Kabirov was third fastest.
Hans Stacey returned from his problems in stage five to notch second fastest time for his MAN TGA 4X4. Franz Echter driving the other Exact-MAN truck came across fourth for the day.
Brazilian racer Andre de Azevedo came across sixth in his Petrobras Lubrax Tatra. Outside of first overall, the battle for the other two podiums spots is quite tight.
Miki Biasion ended up accumulated too much time on stage four and had to retire after running in the top five. "It is a shame, as the truck demonstrated to be competitive." said the Motorsport Italia Iveco team driver.