Bahrain Raid Xtreme’s Sébastien Loeb has closed to within nine minutes of second-placed Lucas Moraes after claiming his fourth consecutive Dakar Rally stage victory.
Loeb completed the first of two back-to-back marathon stages in the Empty Quarter, beating Guerlain Chicherit by just over two minutes to secure Prodrive’s second 1-2 stage result of the rally.
Audi’s Mattias Ekström and Emil Bergkvist put in another strong stage performance to set the third quickest time, the pair just losing out to Chicherit and Alex Winocq following an epic stage-long scrap.
Crucially, though, Loeb took over six minutes out of Overdrive Racing’s Moraes, leaving the BRX Hunter within striking distance with four stages remaining.
Runaway event leaders Nasser Al-Attiyah and Mathieu Baumel were fifth quickest in their Toyota Gazoo Racing Hilux T1+, dropping just 6m42 to Loeb.
Having made a short trip into the Empty Quarter on stage 10, the first leg of the marathon stage took the crews from the overnight Shaybah bivouac further into the south-eastern region of Saudi Arabia for a “gruelling” 274km test.
Labelled by the organizer as “a love letter to rally raid”, stage 11 was disputed over a veritable mix of sandy surfaces, with tracks, dunes and chotts all featuring in equal measure.
Navigation was also extremely tough during the stage, with more than one waypoint expected to prove troublesome.
At the first waypoint after 20km, Loeb led the way despite opening the road for the third day in a row, shading Ekström to the tune of 33s, while Moraes was just 20s further back in third.
Loeb extended his margin to 1m10s, but this time from fellow Prodrive Hunter driver Chicherit with Ekström 1m35s off the pace. The dunes were where Loeb seemed to excel as he and navigator Fabian Lurquin leapt away from the opposition, building a lead of nearly two minutes.
Behind, the battle between Chicherit in second and Ekström in third was hotting up, with just 20s splitting the pair as they went toe-to-toe for the runner-up spot.
Indeed, by the fourth waypoint after 142km, Ekström had closed the gap to Chicherit to just 10s, the stage topography changing once more to the dried-out salt lake chott.
Ekström then moved ahead by the penultimate waypoint by six seconds, but Chicherit recovered some ground by the final time control; the Audi and the Hunter eventually tied dead level, setting up a thrilling final showdown.
In the end, it was Chicherit who got the better of Ekström to finish second to Loeb, but only by 10s.
Moraes was fourth fastest ahead of Teltonika Racing’s Vaidaotas Zala but shipped 6m12s to Loeb while only taking 30s out of Al-Attiyah’s lead.
Having struggled to find a rhythm in the dunes all rally, Al-Attiyah’s team-mate Henk Lategan dropped more time to Loeb and is now nearly nine minutes away from the podium overall.
Mathieu Serradori was the best of the Century Factory Racing Team CR6s in eighth, 9m52 off the overall fastest but ahead of Toyota’s Giniel de Villiers who was ninth fastest and nearly a minute clear of Martin Prokop’s Ford Raptor RS T1+.
The marathon stage reaches its conclusion on Friday, with a 185km test taking competitors back to Shaybah.
Jones moves into T3 lead as De Mevius hits trouble
The big news in the T3 Lightweight Prototype category is that Red Bull Off-Road Junior Team USA’s Austin Jones now leads the overall standings as erstwhile leader Guillaume de Mevius lost more than an hour.
De Mevius encountered mechanical woes just 41km onto the stage and, with a lead of just eight minutes coming onto the stage, saw his challenge for victory all but disappear as a result.
This setback for the GRally Team driver – alongside navigator François Cazalet – has elevated Jones’ Red Bull team-mate Seth Quintero to second overall.
The stage was dominated by the impressive X-raid Yamaha trio of Iganacio Casale, João Ferreira and Ricardo Porém, with the latter battling tooth-and-nail all the way.
They were momentarily joined by Red Bull’s Mitch Guthrie Jr, but the American has not yet made it past the 189km marker.
That left Ferreira in the lead, from Porém and Casale, covered by just 1m20s. Casale moved ahead of Porém by the penultimate waypoint before Porém returned the favor to beat his team-mate by 22s.
Porém’s last-ditch effort was enough to beat not only Casale, but Ferreira as well, the latter finishing 20s down on the best time.
In the overall standings, Jones has now inherited a lead of 55 minutes from Quintero, with three-time winner Francisco Chaleco López Contardo fourth behind De Mevius.
Can-Am Factory Team colleague Cristina Gutiérrez is fifth, making it four Red Bull entries is the top five positions.
Baciuška responds to eek out T4 advantage
The SSV category has been nip-and-tuck for a number of days now, but Red Bull Can-Am Factory Team’s Rokas Baciuška managed to extend his overall lead, albeit marginally over Eryk Goczał.
Coming into the first part of the Marathon Stage, Baciuška’s lead had been just 3m40s, but last year’s runner-up finished 37s clear of the teenage star from Energyland Rally Team.
Goczał had spent the early part of the stage dicing with South Racing’s Yasir Seaidan as Baciuška settled into sixth at the first waypoint.
Seaidan fell by the wayside, dropping to fifth by the end, while Goczał had lost nearly three minutes by the 143km point.
But by the end of the stage, there was almost nothing to choose between Baciuška and Goczał who both made strong recoveries and are comfortable at the head of the field.
Marek Gocał is the nearest challenger to the top two, but is 14 minutes adrift.