Toyota Gazoo Racing’s Nasser Al-Attiyah and Mathieu Baumel are within touching distance of a fifth Dakar Rally victory as Sébastien Loeb snatched second place following another stage win.
Al-Attiyah and Baumel finished as the fourth quickest crew on the 185km stage completing the Empty Quarter loop back to the Sheybah bivouac.
But it was Loeb who once again stole the show as he and navigator Fabian Lurquin claimed their sixth stage win of the event and fifth consecutive scratch time.
Loeb started the stage nine minutes down on the Toyota Hilux of Lucas Moraes but another sensational performance in the half-chott, half-dune stage means he is now just under three minutes adrift with two stages remaining.
Meanwhile, the podium hopes for Al-Attiyah’s TGR team-mate Henk Lategan and Brett Cummings seem to be over after stopping for over 25 minutes after the first waypoint.
The second part of the marathon stage was always going to be a real test of endurance, both mechanically and physically. Having camped overnight near the Omani border, crews still needed to nurse their vehicles back to the sanctity of full service.
For the last four days, Loeb and Lurquin’s pace as road opener has shown no signs of lamenting and the start of stage 12 was no different.
They led Al-Attiyah at the first waypoint after 42km by 55s, with Audi’s Mattias Ekström exactly a minute adrift in third.
That gap over Al-Attiyah was extended to 1m46s by the second time control, as Ekström and navigator Emil Bergkvist continued their excellent second-week form to close in on second place before eventually becoming the nearest challenger to Loeb.
The RS Q e-tron E2 of Ekström, which won the Prologue at the end of December and which looked like a genuine victory challenger on stage one, just about stayed in touch with Loeb at 2m25s behind at the penultimate waypoint.
He and Bergkvist slipped to just over three minutes back at the finish but stayed ahead of Al-Attiyah and Baumel to the tune of 22s to keep second.
Chicherit was fourth quickest in the end, 7m13s off the pace, while the X-raid Mini JCW Rally of Kuba Przygónski and Armand Monleon was fifth ahead of the Century CR6 of Mathieu Serradori and Loïc Minaudier.
Martin Prokop and Viktor Chytka ended up just under 10 minutes down on Loeb but around a minute clear of Overdrive Racing’s Yazeed Al Rajhi as Giniel de Villiers and Moraes completed the top 10 stage times.
In the overall classification, Al-Attiyah’s lead has actually increased to 1h27m10s over new second-placed crew Loeb and Lurquin, while Moraes – who finished 11 minutes down on Loeb in the stage – is now 2m01s adrift in third.
Moraes will at least be able to rest relatively easy heading onto the final two stages of the rally, as he remains some distance clear of Giniel de Villiers and Dennis Murphy.
Stage 12 (Empty Quarter – Sheybah) Result
1 Sébastien Loeb/Fabian Lurquin (Bahrain Raid Xtreme) 1h56m21s
2 Mattias Ekström/Emil Bergkvist (Team Audi Sport) +3m19s
3 Nasser Al-Attiyah/Mathieu Baumel (Toyota Gazoo Racing) +3m31s
4 Guerlain Chicherit/Alex Winocq (GCK Motorsport) +7m13s
5 Kuba Prygónski/Armand Monleon (X-raid Mini JCW) +8m02s
6 Mathieu Serradori/Loïc Minaudier (Century Factory Racing Team) +8m59s
7 Martin Prokop/Viktor Chytka (Orlen Benzina Team) +9m58s
8 Yazeed Al Rajhi/Dirk von Zitzewitz (Overdrive Racing) +10m46s
9 Giniel de Villiers/Dennis Murphy (Toyota Gazoo Racing) +11m34s
10 Lucas Moraes/Timo Gottschalk (Overdrive Racing) +11m38s
Overall Standings after Stage 12
1 Al-Attiyah/Baumel (Toyota Gazoo Racing) 41h16m25s
2 Loeb/Lurquin (Bahrain Raid Xtreme) +1h27m10s
3 Moraes/Gottschalk (Overdrive Racing) +1h29m11s
4 De Villiers/Murphy (Toyota Gazoo Racing) +2h22m21s
5 Henk Lategan/Brett Cummings (Toyota Gazoo Racing) +2h34m21s
6 Prokop/Chytka (Orlen Benzima Team) +3h00m26s
7 Brian Baragwanath/Leonard Cremer (Century Factor Racing Team) +3h34m23s
8 Wei Han/Ma Li (Hanwei Motorsport Team) +4h11m38s
9 Serradori/Minaudier (Century Factory Racing Team) +4h17m38s
10 Juan Cruz Yacopini/Dani Oliveras Carreras (Overdrive Racing) 4h17m53s
Jones and Baciuška edge away in class battles
Red Bull Off-Road Junior Team USA continues to occupy the top two positions in the T3 Lightweight Prototype category heading into the final two stages, with Austin Jones extending his margin over Seth Quintero.
Jones finished fifth on the stage as team-mate Mitch Guthrie Jr claimed his fourth stage win in the Can-Am T3M by MCE-5. Quintero, however, dropped time towards the end of the stage and is now 1h04ms adrift.
Mechanical trouble stopped GRally Team’s Guillaume de Mevius on stage 11 but the Belgian responded by setting the second quickest time, 23s in arrears of Casale to maintain a healthy third overall.
Off the podium, Red Bull Can-Am Factory Team’s Francisco Chaleco López Contardo is fourth, two minutes clear of team-mate Cristina Gutiérrez Herrero who was third on the stage.
Meanwhile in the T4 Modified Side-by-Side class, Rokas Baciuška extended his lead in the overall standings over Energyland Rally Team’s Eryk Goczał to nearly eight minutes.
Baciuška was never more than a minute away from the leading times all stage and finished just 13s behind Goczał’s uncle, Michał.
Marek Goczał lies third overall, ahead of Jeremias Gonzalez Ferioli for South Racing, while team-mate Gerard Farres Guell is fourth, 1h10ms off the lead.
Inaugural Extreme E champion Molly Taylor set the sixth fastest time on the stage, with the South Racing driver running 12th in the overall standings, two places behind former biker Xavier de Soultrait.