After seven of the 14 legs of the 2010 Dakar Rally, the usual suspects have found their way to the fore once more. With Mitsubishi withdrawing from the event in deference to the GFC, it was predictable that Volkswagen would dominate the event and on the mid-point rest day, three factory race VW TDI Touaregs hold the first three spots, all more than 150 minutes clear of the field. In the bikes, where restrictors have been added to the inlets of machinery larger than 450cc machinery, KTM’s 690s have nevertheless dominated almost as much usual, holding first and six of the top 10 places, with two-time winner Cyril Depres an hour and 20 minutes clear of a close battle for second.
In the very important car section, Volkswagen maintains a commanding advantage that will almost certainly see it repeat its 2009 win, having three race Touaregs clear of the field. Carlos Sainz/Lucas Cruz (E/E) are leading the world’s toughest rally, 11 minutes and three seconds in front of team-mates Nasser Al-Attiyah/Timo Gottschalk (Q/D) and 22 minutes six seconds in front of Mark Miller/Ralph Pitchford (USA/ZA). The legendary cross-country marathon levied the most extreme demands on both driver and car during the first rally week. Check the image section to get an idea of the extremes of terrain the drivers have already encountered.
On the first seven legs from Buenos Aires (Argentina) via Iquique to Antofagasta (both in Chile) the rally featured very fast sections across expanses of deep and soft sand, towering dunes as well as altitudes of up to 4,726 metres as it climbed and descended the Andes Mountains. A route largely revised from last year is again making the desert classic the greatest challenge motorsport has to offer.
Arab superstar Nasser Al-Attiyah from Qatar managed an outstanding feat on the seventh leg, taking his second stage win before the rest day. From Iquique to Antofagasta in the Chilean Atacama desert the Volkswagen factory driver commandingly won the 600-kilometre, and so far longest, stage. After a nail-biting duel and the lead changing many times he arrived 3m 29s earlier at the finish than Stéphane Peterhansel/Jean Paul Cottret (F/F) in the X-Raid-BMW. Carlos Sainz finished the stage that first consisted of dunes, then a surface of "salar” salt crystal blocks and, ultimately, quicker, stony sections in third place. Mark Miller took the fourth position. Last year’s winners Giniel de Villiers/Dirk von Zitzewitz (ZA/D) finished the stage before the rest day in sixth place after two punctures but, due to previous delays, is ranking 4h 31m behind the front runners. In the motorcycle class, the new restrictor rule has certainly leveled the field, with Yamaha, Aprilia and Sherco all running at the front at different times. KTM’s other “trump card” Marc Coma has suffered cruel luck so far this rally and has now dropped from contention for the outright win, leaving a group of riders vying for second behind a so far dominant Depres.