It's still too close to call in Tucuman! 139 motorcycles, 26 quads, 106 cars and 64 trucks made it through the first eight stages to the rest day in Tucuman, representing 74.61% of the vehicles which started in Lima. As expected, the Peruvian sequence was as splendid as it was tough, with its fair share of twists and turns. David Casteu, Marcos Patronelli, Stephane Peterhansel and Gerard de Rooy lead their respective categories but, looking at the variety of challenges awaiting them over the next few days, the only thing that's certain is that nothing is certain!
Motorcycles: KTM purrs, Yamaha and Husqvarna roar, Honda whimpers!
Halfway through the motorcycle race, one thing's for sure: the 35th edition of the Dakar will be one for the books. First of all because the shadow of the KTMs still looms long, even though their captain and defending champion Cyril Despres has had a tough first week, most importantly due to a gearbox problem during the marathon stage which forced him to change his engine, with the ensuing 15-minute penalty. This means the Frenchman is only fifth in the general classification, 24′26″ down, and third among the riders of the Austrian manufacturer, which has nevertheless placed six of its motorcycles in the Top 10, with Ruben Faria and Chaleco L¢pez on the provisional podium.
But it's a Yamaha that rules the roost! The brand with the tuning forks may have won only one stage to KTM's four, but it's led the race from stage 4, first with Olivier Pain (now 4th) and then with David Casteu, who seemed almost surprised to take the overall lead in Tucuman. A leap forward for the blue band, probably thanks to its organization in small independent structures, which fosters competition. On the other hand, the other nice surprise of the 2013 Dakar comes from the biggest team of them all: Husqvarna. Although they've still got reliability issues, the sheer speed of the machine and its leader Joan Barred has been impressive. The Spaniard was the best performer of the first week together with Chaleco, with three specials apiece. Yet in the overall, the Swedish brand's first motorcycle lies twelfth, courtesy of highly consistent Alessandro Botturi. Long faces in the Honda camp, as their great official comeback to the Dakar flops. Although the Japanese brand has three motorcycles in the top 12, the first of them lies only seventh, thanks to the great revelation of the rally: Jeremias Esquerre, a first-time participant who's been extremely consistent so far.
The Chilean is therefore in command of the Rookie challenge, with 16′06″ on South Africa's Riaan Van Niekerk. As for motorcycles without assistance, Dutchman Hans-Jos Liefhebber holds the reins with his 35th place overall, ahead of Esteban Smith and Hugo Payen. Finally, among the ladies, Laia Sanz lies a strong 29th overall and doesn't have much to fear from Chilean Josefina Gardulski, who's in 132nd place, more than 15 h behind the Catalan.
The first part of the quad competition ended as it began: with a surprise stage winner. Peru's Ignacio Flores produced a major upset by prevailing in Pisco, while South African rookie Sarel van Biljon grabbed the win in Tucuman. Apart from these two blips, 2010 champion Marcos Patronelli stamped his authority on the rally by taking half of the eight stages on offer, including a four-win streak from the second to the fifth stages. In the other two stages, the honors went to the Chilean duo of Ignacio Casale (fifth last year) and Sebastian Palma. In the overall, Patronelli took advantage of the mechanical mishaps of Tomas Maffei (third last year) and opened a gap of more than an hour (1 h 23m55s) on his main rival Casale, while Van Biljon's win in Tucuman was enough for him to snatch the bottom step of the podium from Rafał Sonik by 3m14s.
Cars: the fight is on
Stephane Peterhansel leads the Dakar at the halfway point! We've seen it happen again and again, always at this time of the year. Yet the defending champion would do well not to rest on his laurels. Yes, he's increased his career win tally to 61, but there's only a hair's breadth between him and the other competitors, especially his main rival Nasser Al-Attiyah, a mere 3m14s back. The fight is on between the last two winners of the rally. Statistics, as well as his proven expertise, tilt the balance towards the 10-time champion, but the Qatari has also shown he's capable to cling onto his rivals when tensions run high: after fighting Carlos Sainz in 2010 and 2011 in the last few days, Al-Attiyah managed to crack the Spaniard to take home his only title so far. Whether he's capable of pulling off a similar coup with cold-blooded Peterhansel, and whether his buggy will be able to make it through the 4,000 km road to Santiago unscathed, is anyone's guess.
The gaps are bigger behind the leading duo, with Giniel de Villiers' Toyota pick-up in third place, 44′03″ back. But the South African's dark horse strategy already won him the race in 2009. Most importantly, such closeness among the next few drivers has rarely been seen before. True, the current diversity is partly due to Krzysztof Holowczyc and Carlos Sainz's premature withdrawals, but eight teams and nine different car makers are represented in the top thirteen overall. And let's not forget about Robby Gordon, who's almost six hours down but has performed consistently in the stages. He'll be looking to clinch a stage win before the race ends next Sunday. Guerlain Chicherit has already unlocked this achievement, but his fifth place halfway through the race still puts him in a good position to target the fourth place, held by Leonid Novitskiy in Tucuman. The X-Raid team's Russian has a margin of less than 15m!
In the Production category, defending champion Xavier Foj is firmly in command, with 40m on rookie Abulla Alheraiz and 57′ on Nicolas Gibon. William Alvaraz's 39th place overall puts him first in the Solo category, just like last year. He's miles ahead of Reinaldo Varela (77th) and Tim Coronel (83rd).
Trucks: De Rooy, but...
Gerard de Rooy decided a best offence was the best title defense, driving his Iveco flat out on the sand throughout the first three stages and taking the overall lead with such dominance that the rest of the field seemed almost a sideshow. But the truck race was shaken to the core when De Rooy lost half an hour in the dunes in stage 4, Hans Stacey overturned his truck and eventually withdrew, and Loprais and Kamaz came back into business, hinting that the second week of racing will go down to the wire. The defending champion, whose main rival is a mere 22m back, will have to see off the three-pronged Kamaz challenge, with Nikolaev 2nd, Mardeev 4th and Karginov 5th, as well as the Tatras with Kolomy (3rd) and Loprais (6th). With the first three chasers within less than 47m of the leader, expect the fight to be fierce.