Casteu takes over, it's sink or swim for the cars
Joan Barreda won the last stage before the rest day in Tucumán, while David Casteu toppled Olivier Pain from the top of the general classification. Cyril Despres bounced back after changing his engine during this mammoth stage. The car race was neutralised due to a flash flood. Stéphane Peterhansel is still in command of the overall, but the size of the gaps, and even the name of today's winner, are still a mystery.
It was just like a game of coconut shy! The eighth stage of the Dakar was expected to be tricky and, above all, long. Even the amputation of the first part of the special due to torrential rain didn't blunt the edge of this stage. Navigational skills proved to be the decisive factor today. Especially at kilometre point 122, where a group of wayward riders lost almost half an hour, including yesterday's winner Kurt Caselli and, most importantly, overall leader Olivier Pain, whose mistake ended up costing him the lead, as well as "Chaleco" López, who also lost his second place.
At the end of the day, the list of those who benefitted from this was even longer. Chief among them was Joan Barreda, who started in 21st place this morning and seized the opportunity offered to him on a platter by those in front of him. He may no longer be within striking distance of the overall win he aimed for, but the Husqvarna rider took his third stage this year with seven minutes to spare on American Johnny Campbell, followed by surprise guests such as Ivan Jakes (third), Pedro Bianchi Prata (fourth) and Vincent Guindani (fifth). Behind them, David Casteu managed to limit the damage enough to take over from teammate Olivier Pain at the top of the general classification. Cyril Despres will also be happy to reverse the negative trend after his terrible day at the office yesterday. The defending champion was saved by Pole Marek Dabrowski's willingness to give him his KTM's engine at the assistance-less bivouac in Cachi, enabling him to tackle today's special with a born-again motorcycle, avoid navigational mistakes and zero in on the second place overall in Tucumán, 9′26″ down on Casteu. Nevertheless, his engine change will cost him a 15-minute penalty and push him down to sixth place overall ahead of the second week of racing, when each rider's strategic decision to change his engine or not will take on a new dimension.
Sarel Van Biljon's big shell could well become a recurring sight. In what is his first participation in the Dakar, yesterday he missed the win by 34", but today he was the strongest between Salata and Tucumán. The South African, clearly more at ease on rolling terrain than on the dunes, was faster than Marcos Patronelli, but the Argentinean still leads the overall. Ignacio Casale remains his closest challenger, but today's performance catapulted Van Biljon to the provisional podium, toppling Rafał Sonik.
In the car category, the weather conditions made things more difficult, with torrential rains slowing the vehicles down a bit. Well, that's an understatement! The race was stopped at CP2, 88 km into the stage, as a riverbed on the course of the special suddenly swelled with water. At the time, Nasser Al-Attiyah was the fastest, 13″ ahead of Gordon but, most importantly, almost 3 minutes ahead of Stéphane Peterhansel… putting him within striking distance of the top place in the overall. In the meanwhile, more than fifty cars had gone past this point, inching towards the finish line with mixed success. It was here that the Qatari driver got stuck and saw several of his rivals disappear into the distance. Guerlain Chicherit was both the first and the fastest driver across the finish line. But the SMG driver, who's still chasing his first win this year, may yet see the stage slip from his grasp, as the race officials still haven't decided which times will be taken into account!
In the fight for the title, there's no doubt that Stéphane Peterhansel, who also overcame the meteorological challenges to post the fifth best time, will keep the race lead before the rest day. But, with what margin? Nasser Al-Attiyah's problems also haunted Giniel de Villiers, who held the last podium spot yesterday and at today's CP2.