Carlos Sainz is within touching distance of a dream Dakar farewell victory for his Audi team.
The Spaniard has arrived in Yanbu after 3,000 miles and almost a fortnight of competition. Now, one day remains. Just a 108-mile loop in and out of the Red Sea port stands between Sainz and a fourth success on motorsport’s most arduous marathon. There’s the added importance of this being Audi’s final Dakar appearance, with the end of the German manufacturer’s off-road program in sight.
For Sainz’s main rival Sébastien Loeb, there’s the heartache of another near miss. Loeb dropped more than an hour after a heavy landing damaged the front-right suspension on his BRX Hunter on Thursday’s stage. Unable to fix the car, he was thrown a lifeline by fellow Hunter driver Yungang Zi who stopped to help.
Going into the penultimate stage, Loeb was 13 minutes behind the lead RS Q e-tron. Eighty-six miles into Thursday’s 260-mile section south from Alula, Loeb stopped his Prodrive-prepared machine. Minutes later, Sainz passed him on the road and the two-time world champion immediately dialled down his speed.
Sainz ended the section almost an hour and a half ahead of second placed driver Guillaume de Mevius (Toyota Hilux). Loeb is a further eight minutes down in third.
The Dakar leader told DirtFish: “When I saw him, I took it a little easier. This was not an easy stage – if we have to push all the way through then it was going to be difficult.
“We had a puncture 40 kilometers (24 miles) from the finish. We stopped to change it. The main thing was to bring the car to the service without any problems.”
More than anybody, Sainz is aware that a rally’s not finished until the podium. Reminded of his late retirement on the 1998 Rally of Great Britain by DirtFish, he offered a wry smile.
“Absolutely it’s not over,” he said. “You need to finish before you celebrate. We have a very strong lead, but there is still one stage to go.
“We will check the car carefully tonight and hopefully we can bring it home tomorrow.”
Loeb, who suffered five punctures of his own through Thursday, explained the incident which cost him a shot at a maiden Dakar win.
He told DirtFish: “I came over a brow, it was a slow place, and there was a stone I couldn’t see. We hit it and bent something in the suspension. We were lucky that Yungang Zi came and he had a spare part in his car – but it was one hour before he came.
“We changed it and we could continue. After that, it was about playing with the punctures and the punctured tires -we destroyed one punctured tire and we replaced it with another one. It was not easy.
“We are still in a fight, there is not much time between second and fourth place and we are in the middle of that, so we will have to push.”
Additional reporting by Colin Clark