Sébastien Loeb is so close that he can see it. Two stages are between him and the end of the Dakar: a first win after eight years of trying is in sight, so long as he can catch the 13m22s in arrears that he currently has to Carlos Sainz.
On paper, Wednesday seemed like a good day for Loeb. He’d found another seven minutes on Sainz. But it had been far from smooth sailing.
“We had some trouble with the [hydraulic] jack,” Loeb told DirtFish. “We were on the road section and the car stayed in the air so we had to cut the tube. Then we couldn’t use it on the left.”
Two punctures followed – both on the left-hand side of the car. With no hydraulic raising system, Loeb had to improvise and teeter the Prodrive Hunter on some rocks to get the rear left raised. 12 minutes were lost faffing about.
Even with all that drama, the rally lead remains in sight. But there are two intertwined obstacles Loeb faces: the strength of opposition and a repeated weakness of his car.
“We are alone,” Loeb pointed out. He is in a fight of just one Prodrive Hunter versus two front-running Audis.
Bahrain Raid Xtreme, the banner under which Loeb’s entry is fielded, is a single-car unit. There are seven Hunters in total but only two are piloted by Dakar pros: Loeb and reigning Dakar champion Nasser Al-Attiyah.
Al-Attiyah is not, officially, in the same team as Loeb. He races for Nasser – literally.
Audi meanwhile has the cavalry out in force to support Sainz. On Wednesday, Sainz had issues of his own. But when disaster did strike, both Stéphane Peterhansel – now tied for the most Dakar stage wins ever with Ari Vatanen – and Mattias Ekström were swiftly on the scene to offer assistance.
Ekström never got going again after aiding Sainz – but Peterhansel will remain close to Sainz when Thursday’s stage begins.
Meanwhile, Al-Attiyah has already walked out, fed up of his Hunter running into technical problems.
“Sorry, I don’t want to jump back into this car,” said an indignant Al-Attiyah. And he stuck to his word.
Loeb did his best to be pragmatic about his only potential helping hand against the Audi trio not sticking around to assist.
“He’s doing what he wants,” was Loeb’s riposte. “For sure in this situation, he was not so motivated to continue, he had some troubles. At one point he decided to leave. That’s his decision. It’s like that.
“He’s doing his own rally; he’s not doing the Dakar to help me. That’s how it is.
“For sure if I had another car starting behind me tomorrow it would be better.”
The other problem is the Hunter. Punctures are a given on the Dakar but both Loeb and Al-Attiyah, before he abandoned the race, had especially struggled with them. And it’s partly down to the design of the car itself.
“It’s our weak point; we have easily some punctures with the heat of the exhaust that are heating the rear tires,” explained Loeb.
Loeb is out of strategic options; this is no longer a chess match. He has to catch over 13 minutes in two stages. All he can do is push on.
Dakar’s penultimate test is a rough, rock-strewn affair, though. The puncture risk is high as it is. Knowing he’s potentially more liable to tire trouble than Sainz but with the need to push on, Loeb will have to strike the finest of balances on Thursday.
His road position is also a double-edged sword: good because he has some lines to follow, bad because of the increased puncture risk of running in the dust.
“I hope the dust will not be too big a problem also because we saw today a lot of guys complaining about the dust,” Loeb added.
“For me, when I changed the second wheel, I had two cars passing, I was in the dust, it was impossible to catch, so I decided to lift and stay behind because I couldn’t see anything and it was too risky to get another puncture in this situation.
“So hopefully tomorrow we will be able to overtake.”
He’ll need to make some passes. Starting 17th on the road, Loeb has Peterhansel directly in front of him and Sainz two cars behind.