Mattias Ekström brilliantly claimed his first ever Dakar Rally stage win, topping the eighth day ahead of Audi team-mate Stéphane Peterhansel.
Starting eighth on the road, Ekström was among the fastest all stage and made the most of his advantageous road position to beat the 14-time event winner by just 49 seconds at the finish.
“I had a really, really enjoyable ride, [navigator] Emil [Bergkvist] did fantastic navigation the whole stage, not one detail which was not perfect, so a very good day,” said Ekström post-stage.
“We still feel like the rookies here, trying to learn every day and today we didn’t make any mistakes.”
The surprise package of the day was undoubtedly Sébastien Loeb who was third quickest in his Bahrain Raid Xtreme Hunter, despite opening the road and suffering an early puncture.
However, the loss of his remaining spare wheel meant that he was only able to take seven minutes out of overall leader Nasser Al-Attiyah who also had a puncture before the first waypoint.
On the menu for the eighth stage of the 44th edition of the Dakar was a 245-mile blast south from Al Dawadimi to Wadi Ad-Dawasir, providing a mixture dunes and sandy tracks for the opening 124 miles, 18.6 of which were littered by sharp, rocky tracks.
That proved to be the undoing of both Loeb and Al-Attiyah, who had to stop to change wheels, leaving them outside the top 20 at the first waypoint.
Loeb shipped over two minutes to leader Ekström after 26 miles, but the nine-time World Rally Champion produced a sensational fightback.
By the second waypoint, Loeb had bridged the gap to Peterhansel to just under two minutes before reducing that margin even more by the third.
Loeb then took the lead after 105 miles by 36s from the leading Audi and only fell behind Peterhansel after his Hunter appeared to lose his only other spare wheel, forcing him to ease off until the finish.
Despite finishing 11th on the stage, Al-Attiyah’s day was salvaged somewhat by Loeb’s drop-off in pace at the end as well as his own recovery. The Toyota Gazoo Racing driver, who also suffered from a suspected differential problem which forced him to complete the stage with only two-wheel-drive, managed to recoup a full two minutes to minimize the damage done early on.
His overall lead over Loeb remains healthy but has been trimmed to 37 minutes heading into stage nine on Tuesday.
Behind Loeb, the third RS Q e-tron of Carlos Sainz finished fourth, just three seconds adrift of his former factory Peugeot Dakar team-mate, while stage five winner Henk Lategan demonstrated just how closely matched the T1+ cars are, by coming home nine seconds further back in fifth.
Orlando Terranova, who won Friday’s sixth stage, finished sixth on the stage, ahead of SRT Racing’s Matthieu Serradori and the X-raid Mini JCW of Kuba Przygónski.
Yazeed Al Rajhi was ninth with Al-Attiyah rounding out the top 10.
In the overall, there is a change in the rankings outside the top three as Overdrive Racing’s Lucio Alvarez encountered mechanical problems early on the stage, losing more than three hours. He has yet to reach the second waypoint, meaning his top 10 aspirations have all but been extinguished.
That moves Przygónski up to fourth, with Terranova three minutes behind in fifth.
There was also drama for BRX’s Nani Roma, who was forced to stop on the stage with his mechanical woes. The 2014 event winner dropped more than an hour.
Elsewhere, Guerlain Chicherit was another to lose time in his GCK Motorsport Thunder after a cog came loose on his bio-ethanol powered T1+.
Stage 8 (Al Dawadimi – Wadi Ad-Dawasir) result
1 Mattias Ekström/Emil Bergkvist (Audi) 3h43m21s
2 Stéphane Peterhansel/Edouard Boulanger (Audi) +49s
3 Sébastien Loeb/Fabian Lurquin (Bahrain Raid Xtreme) +3m08s
4 Carlos Sainz/Lucas Cruz (Audi) +3m11s
5 Henk Lategan/Brett Cummings (Toyota Gazoo Racing) +3m20s
6 Orlando Terranova/Dani Oliveras Carreras (Bahrain Raid Xtreme) +4m53s
7 Matthieu Serradori/Loïc Minaudier (SRT Racing Century) +7m03s
8 Kuba Przygónski/Timo Gottschalk (X-raid Mini JCW) +8m11s
9 Giniel de Villiers/Dennis Murphy (Toyota Gazoo Racing) +9m00s
10 Yazeed Al Rajhi/Michael Orr (Overdrive Racing Toyota) +9m51s
1 Nasser Al-Attiyah/Mathieu Baumel (Toyota) 27h45m52s
2 Loeb/Lurquin (Bahrain Raid Xtreme) +37m58s
3 Al Rajhi/ Orr (Overdrive Toyota) +53m13s
4 Kuba Przygónski/Timo Gottschalk (X-raid Mini JCW) +1h28m06s
5 Orlando Terranova/Dani Oliveras Carreras (Bahrain Raid Xtreme) +1h31m39s
6 Vladimir Vasilyev/Oleg Uperenko (VRT Team BMW) +1h28m06s +1h40m57s
7 De Villiers/Murphy (Toyota Gazoo Racing) +1h46m05s
8 Sebastian Halpern/Bernardo Graue (X-raid Mini JCW) +2h08m42s
9 Martin Prokop/Viktor Chytka (Ford Raptor RS) +2h09m05s
10 Serradori/Minaudier (SRT Racing Century) +2h31m31s
Jones extends SSV lead as Quintero nears stage record
Can-Am Factory Team South Racing’s Austin Jones extended his lead at the top of the side-by-side class over team-mate Gerard Farres Guell by five seconds as Cobant-Energylandia’s Goczał brothers claimed another one-two.
For Marek Goczał, it was fourth stage win out of eight, beating Michał by just under three minutes.
The pair ended up more than eight minutes clear of Jones, who in turn narrowly beat Farres Guell.
Jones continues to lead Farres Guell by 6m38s, while Michał Goczał is third, 14m49s off the pace but still in contention.
After dropping out of the running for overall victory, South Racing’s Rodrigo Luppi de Oliveira had started the stage well, topping the first waypoint times, only to lose more than half an hour with more misfortune.
Extreme E champion Molly Taylor, who has battled multiple mechanical issues throughout her maiden Dakar Rally, came home 24 minutes behind Goczał to post the eighth-quickest time.
Meanwhile in the T3 Lightweight Prototype category, all eyes were on Red Bull Off-Road Junior USA Team’s Seth Quintero who claimed yet another stage victory.
The American is aiming to break the record for individual stage wins in a single Dakar – held since 1994 by Pierre Lartigue with 10 wins – and put his rivals to the pump again, beating Sebastien Eriksson by nearly 12 minutes.
Class leader Francisco “Chaleco” Lopez Contardo again took it easy on the stage to preserve his overall lead of 1h19m from EKS South Racing team-mate Eriksson.
There was yet more disappointment, however, for Quintero’s team-mate Cristina Gutierréz who dropped almost three hours after mechanical gremlins halted her between the first and second waypoints.