Dakar Rally leader Stephane Peterhansel says this year’s event is the hardest since it was relocated to South America, and has the spirit of the rally’s African roots.
The Frenchman is currently in a strong position to seal a 14th Dakar triumph, holding a 27-minute advantage over Peugeot teammate Carlos Sainz going into the rest day.
A gruelling five days of dune running to open the Dakar have put paid to the victory hopes to the likes of Sebastien Loeb, Cyril Depres, Mikko Hirvonen and Nani Roma.
Toyota stars Nasser Al-Attiyah and Giniel de Villiers have also been left well off the pace, with Bernhard ten Brinke the Japanese marque’s best-placed challenger in third overall.
While the relentless sand dune stages have resulted in a high rate of early attrition, Peterhansel reckons it’s been a personally satisfying beginning to the 2018 event.
He says it’s been the toughest he’s seen since the relocation to South America in 2009, and that for the first time time the event is reminiscent of the old days through Africa.
“Probably this is the hardest Dakar since we were in South America,” he said, “especially because the dunes were very soft and really complicated.
“And there was no transition day; we started and it was dunes, dunes, dunes, dunes, dunes – five days, and every day it was a bit more complicated. [On Wednesday] it was crazy.
“For me, I like these conditions. I remember the old Dakar in Africa. I like the spirit of Dakar like that. For me it’s reminds me of the spirit of it in Africa, so it’s really good.
“Not every year, but since we’ve been in South America the Dakar has been a little bit different. We are really more stages with WRC tracks, so it’s not the same story.”
‘Too much sand’ for Sainz
Peterhansel’s teammate and chief rival Sainz was less impressed with the sandy start to the 2018 running of the Dakar, claiming that five straight dune stages is ‘too much’.
“Since the start of we’ve been off-piste in the sand and I don’t express myself best on that sort of terrain,” said the two-time World Rally champion.
“So, today, even if there were a lot of straight lines and it wasn’t very exciting, it’s good to change a little. Five days of sand is too much.”
In terms of a strategy to try and haul in Peterhansel over the second week, Sainz said his focus will simply be on not joining the growing list of retirements.
“The team will ask us to bring the car to the bivouac in good shape every day, and that’s my plan,” he said.
When asked if that meant he was happy to settle for second, Sainz responded: “I didn’t say that, I said I will bring the car safe to the bivouac.”
Additional reporting by Sergio Lillo and Gerald Dirnbeck