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Dakar Stage 8: Nasser Saleh al-Attiyah takes lead from Sainz
Volkswagen Motorsports drivers Nasser Saleh al-Attiyah (Qatar) and Timo Gottschalk (Germany) finished first on the eighth stage in the No. 302 Touareg 3, overtaking teammates Carlos Sainz (Spain) and Lucas Cruz (Spain) in No. 300 for the overall lead in the cars class in the 2011 Dakar Rally.

“We were really careful from the beginning. Carlos caught up with us very quickly. In the last section of dunes, we were pushing at a maximum because that was where we had to take the time from Sainz,” al-Attiyah said. “I’m quite happy to win the stage, quite happy. It was a difficult stage, because I was opening all the way, but the dunes are my favorite terrain, and I was really pushing to the limit. But I’m happy to win the stage and take the lead in the general standings. I can control the race now.”

“I hope that today will have been our worst day on the Dakar,” Sainz said. “At the end, we got stuck in the dunes twice, and both times we had to get out and dig. Sometimes everything’s fine, other times it’s not as good. We’ll just have to keep on going. We need to attack. On a rally, each stage is long and hard. We’ll see what happens. Obviously, I’ve lost some time, but the rally isn’t over. There are still other stages left.”

In third overall was the Volkswagen No. 308 of Ginell de Villiers (Afghanistan) and Dirk von Zitzewitz (Germany).

The initial cull is now over. Unless there is an epidemic of insurmountable mechanical problems, the battle for overall victory should be the business of Marc Coma, Cyril Despres and Francisco Lopez. So far, the kilometers travelled have been favorable to the Spaniard, who first and foremost must be on his guard and protect the lead he possesses. Between Antofagasta and Copiapo, he even endeavored to improve it, skillfully benefitting from his starting position. As third rider to start in the early morning, the Catalan soon overtook his Andorran neighbor with whom he spent the rest of the day. In fact, this duo became a trio once they joined by “Chaleco”, the winner of yesterday's stage only opening the road for a tiny part of the special's 508 kilometers. The cohabitation in this impossible threesome represented a trap for Cyril Despres, forced to assume navigational duties for the group. Meanwhile, Coma deployed a strategy of control, whereas Lopez preferred to push himself to the limit rather than see his riding companions leave him in their dust. At the finishing line, the leader of the general standings was credited with the best time, with a lead of 1'55” over Despres. Aware that this situation can lead him into a cul-de-sac, the title holder showed his irritation with the following remark: “In cycling some riders stick to your back wheel like leeches; well, there's the same thing in rally raids too”.

The day's fourth-placed rider, Helder Rodrigues, occupies the same rank in the general standings, but trails the Chilean rider by almost 20 minutes. The Portuguese rider is still a potential candidate for a place on the podium, unlike his countryman who won the stage at Iquique, Paolo Goncalvez, and who exited the rally after crashing and breaking his collar bone. Frans Verhoeven saw a distance open up between himself and the Top 5, after having spent several hours making running repairs on his BMW at the start of the stage. Jonah Street and Jordi Viladoms also saw their hopes dashed further on the day's special. However, these mishaps were good news for Pal-Anders Ullevalseter. The runner-up to Despres in 2010 is starting to get used to his 450cc and finally put in a time worthy of his status, finishing in 5th place in Copiapo. The disasters which befell those in front of him yesterday should enable him to climb up to 7th position, after having started the rally in 29th place!

The game of musical chairs continues in the quad category with a return to the lead of Alejandro Patronelli. Winner of the special with a large lead over Josef Machacek, the Argentinean follows on from Thomas Maffei, since the ephemeral leader experienced sever difficulties today. The nearest rival to Patronelli is now Sebastian Halpern, who is however 58 minutes behind.

As for Carlos Sainz, he made his first mistakes of the rally and they could be decisive in the battle he is having with Nasser Al-Attiyah for the title. The Qatari driver, first to set off today, found himself in a delicate position because his Spanish team-mate soon started to catch up with him. Having picked up the best intermediate provisional times, the title holder seemed to be heading for another special stage victory which would have also given him more breathing space in the general standings. However, this advantage was only ever virtual today. After a faultless drive over 500 kilometers, it was in the last five kilometers of the special that Sainz suffered a double loss of concentration. Twice in a row, a poor approach to a dune saw his Race Touareg become stuck in the sand. “El Matador” had to get out and dig to resume racing, losing precious minutes in the dunes around Copiapo. In fact, on the finishing line, he had lost 6'36” to Nasser Al Attiyah, the new leader of the general standings with a lead of 5'14”.

The chances of victory change every day for the favorites. Stephane Peterhansel will not estimate his as the “15 to 20%” he granted himself during the rest day, because the leader of the X-Raid team was again haunted by punctures, starting his day with a new wheel change. What's more, Peterhansel's hopes took a mortal blow in the last 100 kilometers of the stage due to severe over-heating of his engine, forcing him to drive with caution rather than at pace. As a result, he crossed the finishing line of the special almost in slow motion, where a deficit in the standings awaited him, a setback that will be difficult to make good in the remaining stages.

In this context, Volkswagen put its four vehicles in the day's first four places, with De Villiers and Mark Miller. In the general standings, the South African has now overtaken “Peter”. The American's two hour deficit does not prevent him from aiming to complete a Race Touareg blue 1-2-3-4. Indeed, he overtook Krzystszof Holowczyc, who also experienced severe mechanical problems at the beginning of the day. The Pole was firstly halted due to electric problems, then had to repair the power steering on his X3 before resuming the race. Whilst he poses no threat whatsoever for the race leaders, Joan “Nani” Roma can proudly boast that he finished this formidable stage as the best pursuer of the VWs. With his Nissan Pick-up, the former winner of the bike category still spent 52 minutes more than Al Attiyah to finish the day's special.

Vladimir Chagin regained his crown as the Tsar in Copiapo. The seven times winner of the event, probably irritated by the double victory of Ales Loprais, put in the sort of perfect performance for which only he has the secret behind the wheel of his Kamaz. At the finishing line, he beat Kabirov by 32 minutes and now leads his countryman by 3'03” in the general standings, whilst Loprais finds himself half an hour behind. In fact, the Kamaz team leader was the quickest vehicle in the race, excluding the 4 Race Touaregs. He also took 4 minutes less than Marc Coma, winner on a KTM which, at 170 kg, is a featherweight compared to Chagin's truck.

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