Defending champion Sam Sunderland rode his KTM motorbike to a second stage victory from three at the Dakar Rally on Monday, run on dirt and sand tracks through imposing Peruvian canyons between Pisco and San Juan de Marcona.
The 28-year-old Briton known as Super Sam to his fans covered the course in 3hr 20min 43sec, more than three minutes ahead of his two closest rivals — Honda’s Argentine Kevin Benavides and his fellow KTM rider Toby Price of Australia.
The feat saw the Briton climb top of the overall standings, Sunday’s stage winner Joan Barreda of Spain starting well but getting lost.
Barreda came in 30 minutes off Sunderland’s mark after taking a short cut and got lost only to lose even more time by doubling back too far when missing a waypost in the sand dunes.
Meanwhile, Emirati rider Mohammed Al Balooshi gained 40 positions on day two, moving up to 36th in the overall ranking after the second stage.
He said: “It wasn’t easy. I kept my focus and kept telling myself to finish. It was quite heavy. It was a difficult day with lots of accidents. I’m very happy my bike is in good condition.”
— Sport360° (@Sport360) January 8, 2018
UAE’s Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi was satisfied by how he opened his Dakar Rally campaign and wants to continue the good momentum for the remaining stages.
The Abu Dhabi Racing chairman, alongside co-driver Xavier Panseri, had a lost waypoint which cost him two minutes in the first stage but completed the 32km Peruvian desert stage between Lima and Pisco on Saturday night in 24th position in 27 minutes and seven seconds.
Although it was more than six minutes slower than winner Nasser Al Attiyah, Sheikh Khalid was pleased with the start and is hoping to improve over the next fortnight.
“We started on a balanced speed. There were a lot of tracks as the bikes started before the cars so there were a lot of tracks,” said the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge winner.
“As a result I missed a waypoint and so I had to circle to get back on track which cost us some precious time. But after this we had good momentum.
“It was a short day, just about 31km of special stage and now I am looking forward to the longer stages that lie ahead of us on this epic rally.”
Sheikh Khalid’s time was even quicker than nine-time world rally champion Sebastien Loeb who is bidding for a maiden Dakar win.
The Frenchman’s hopes were hit when his Peugeot developed brake problems which left him 5 min 37 sec off the lead and down in 29th place.
“Happily, it was only 31 kilometres!” said Loeb who is bidding to become just the fourth man to win both the world rally title and Dakar after Finnish duo Ari Vatanen and Juha Kankkunen and Spain’s Carlos Sainz.
“I made it without brakes! Zero brakes!,” he added before admitting he had no idea where the problem originated and that his car’s brake lights had not provided any warning.
Peugeot, who swept the podium in 2017 with Stephane Peterhansel taking a 13th overall title, endured a day to forget with their cars struggling in the sand and wind of the desert.
Peterhansel, who has won the last two car titles, lost 2 min 15 sec and is 11th overall while team-mate Cyril Despres is 2 min 36 sec behind and in 15th.
“I didn’t have a good feeling,” said Peterhansel. “The sun was high and I couldn’t see the other sides of the dunes. So I preferred to be safe. We will have to wake up.”
UAE’s Sheikh Khalid Al Qassimi hopes to learn from last year’s experience and pull off a surprise as the Abu Dhabi Racing chairman lines up in Saturday’s Dakar Rally.
Twelve months after being forced to retire due to technical issues on the penultimate day on his Dakar debut, the Emirati is back on South American territory for another shot of tackling the world’s most notorious cross-country race, which begins in the Peruvian capital of Lima.
Over the next fortnight, competitors will tackle a gruelling terrain of more than 9,000km.
The course includes criss-crossing the Andes and confronting the unique physical demands of Bolivia’s thin air, before crossing the finish line in Cordoba, Argentina on January 20.
Al Qassimi will be behind the Peugeot 3008 DKR Maxi, run by PH Sport alongside co-driver Xavier Panseri, and having broken into the top 10 at one stage last year, the Emirati has three wishes for the 14-stage race.
“I have three wishes for the Dakar. I hope it will be a nice race and no incidents for anyone,” he said. “Secondly, I don’t want to get lost and finally I would like to be the surprise of the Rally. But, I know that on just one stage we can lose more than an hour. I am only the driver, my co-driver Xavier Panseri has less experience but he is calmer and so I am confident.”
As well as tackling the course, the strength of field from the other 110 drivers makes Sheikh Khalid’s task of achieving his best target even more difficult.
Reigning champion Stephane Peterhansel headlines the list with a rich Dakar history.
Searching for his 14th Dakar Rally, the Frenchman has won on four-wheels seven times, including the last two for Peugeot, and scorched to six titles on a motorbike since his event debut in 1988.
The veteran 52-year-old led a podium sweep in the car race for the French manufacturer in 2017 and will be favourite again alongside team-mates Carlos Sainz, a two-time world rally champion and 2010 winner at the Dakar, Cyril Despres and Sebastien Loeb, a nine-time world rally champion.
“We have to get out of Peru well placed. With all the dunes, we must try not to get bogged down. The rally will not be decided before the finish line in Argentina.”
Portuguese football manager Andre Villas-Boas will also take part.
Ex-Chelsea and Porto boss revives a family link with his uncle Pedro Villas-Boas driving in the race in 1982 in a 4×4.
Meanwhile, Dubai-based Sam Sunderland admits being the bikes champion does present itself challenges but says it’s one that will spur him on.
“I am really looking forward to getting started on Saturday,” said the 28-year-old, who became the first Brit to win the crown 12 months ago.
“The 2017 season was good for me, I started off winning the Dakar and then fought for the World Championship right down to the final round in Morocco. I felt good on the bike all year, and the introduction of the new model gives some extra motivation to do well.
“Starting with the number one plate on my bike does add a little pressure, but I am honoured to have the opportunity to do so.”
A total of 166 other riders including last year’s runner-up Matthias Walkner and 2016 champion and team-mate Toby Price all stand in Sunderland’s way. And the Brit believes if he can still be in the mix after the first seven days, it will set him up nicely.
“The first five days of the rally are in the dunes of Peru and I really like that kind of terrain. Hopefully I’ll have a good race and if I can take things fast but steady during that first week I should be in a good position going into Bolivia and then onto the finish in Argentina.”