X-raid Mini JCW’s Stéphane Peterhansel is looking good to secure a record-extending 14th Dakar Rally victory this week. But although the Frenchman holds a 17-minute lead over Toyota’s Nasser Al-Attiyah with just two stages remaining, it’s not a done deal by any stretch of the imagination.
The penultimate stage of this year’s edition was supposed to be the longest, and arguably the toughest challenge of the rally. Running from Al-Ula to the city of Yanbu, the total stage distance is 371 miles, having been shortened by around 30 miles on Wednesday evening by the event organizer due to adverse weather in the region. Still, there’s 288 miles of competition on the special stage to complete.
The length, even in its original form, would not have posed too many problems for competitors in the car and SSV categories, but the stage profile has even the most experienced taking stock.
“We did this stage last year in the opposite direction and the navigation will be difficult on this one for sure,” said Al-Attiyah.
“There will be some dunes of course but more mountains. It will be a very tricky stage. I am a good hunter and I go for the victory every Dakar so I will try my best on this stage as well.
“I think tomorrow will decide the Dakar. There’s no strategy, we’ll just keep driving fast. Of course, Stéphane is under the most pressure because he’s the leader, but I’m also under pressure: if I can’t make it, I’ll finish second.”
Al-Attiyah isn’t the only one expecting Al-Ula-Yanbu to throw up problems. Dakar director David Castera knows exactly what the stage is like, having endured a somewhat arduous reconnaissance of the test in the summer of 2020.
“Stage 11 is, for me, the most difficult of this Dakar,” Castera explained during November’s official route presentation. “Over 250 miles of special stage to complete, including 62 miles of dunes.
“I was lucky enough to drive the stage with the roadbook during the recces, and it took us nearly two days to complete. This is a really hard special, the competitors will need to keep their energy for this Al-Ula-Yanbu stage.”
The stage itself is a veritable mix of everything the 2021 Dakar has thrown at its competitors.
It begins at around 600m of altitude and features a back-and-forward surface change, between soil tracks and sandy paths. There’s 4% stony sections as well which, given the number of punctures sustained by cars throughout the event so far, could produce another unexpected curveball.
Al-Attiyah has had his fair share of punctures, having suffered two on stage nine that helped balloon Peterhansel’s lead in the overall classification.
The dunes mentioned by Castera come towards the end of the test, when concentration and physical and mental fatigue are at their highest. The dunes are typically the most demanding in terms of navigation, which has played an even bigger role during the 2021 edition.
Carlos Sainz’s victory hopes were all-but ended due to two major navigational errors during the first week, as he lost half an hour to Peterhansel on two separate stages.
Peterhansel may have a handy lead for now, but one mistake from his near-flawless Swiss co-driver Edouard Boulanger could turn the rally on its head.
That’s why Peterhansel, ever the wary, is taking nothing for granted.
“The tension goes up as soon as you start to hesitate, so that’s when you need to stay as calm as possible,” Peterhansel said at the end of stage 10.
“The pressure never goes away; from the moment you wake up until you go to bed.
“When you do well on a stage, you know it would be a real pity to see all that effort go down the drain! Being in the lead is the best position, but it’s also where you’ve got the most to lose.”
It may be Peterhansel’s rally to lose, but the Mini driver is not letting up a shred of that steely concentration that has served him so well until now.