The navigation riddles returned on Stage Nine of the 2024 Dakar Rally as the current crop of race leaders defended their spots at the top. The convoy tackled the 417-kilometre timed special stage between Ha’il and AlUla and encountered a host of hidden waypoints that made it difficult to keep things on track. Only three stages now remain before the chequered flag flies in Yanbu on Friday, January 19… it’s starting to look like now or never for the chasing pack.
Story of Stage Nine: Navigating the Dakar
Sébastien Loeb was back on the power in his Prodrive Hunter on Stage Nine and chipping away at the deficit between himself and Ultimate class leader Carlos Sainz. Loeb took a total of 4m14s out of Sainz during the 417-kilometre stage between Ha’il and AlUla despite suffering his fair share of misfortune.
“We had two punctures in the middle of the stage so at the end I had to be a bit careful not to have a third one. The gap is still big [to Sainz], but we have three stages to go so we will continue to push on the next days.” – Sébastien Loeb
It was power in numbers for Team Audi Sport on Stage Nine as the three Audi RS Q e-trons of Sainz, Stéphane Peterhansel and Mattias Ekström stuck together. The tactic for the remaining days is clear, Peterhansel and Ekström will stick to Sainz like glue so they can lend assistance if needed.
“I’m happy with the stage, keeping in mind that I opened quite a lot. At the end it was very stressful inside the car when the navigation was very difficult. We rode as three cars together today and that was good. I knew I had some support behind me.” – Carlos Sainz
Behind the two-horse fight between Sainz and Loeb for the overall Ultimate class win comes a three-way contest for the last spot on the podium. Lucas Moraes is currently third but he has Guillaume de Mévius in fourth and Giniel de Villiers in fifth waiting to pounce on any mistakes in the coming days.
“We’re still third overall but lost some time to fourth today. We’re still here with three to go, let’s keep fighting.” – Lucas Moraes
“I think it was the most tiring day physically for me. It was also demanding for the car. In the first part it was hard to have good grip and in the second part in the stones we slowed down just to be careful. We want to make it to the end.” – Laia Sanz
It was another day to forget for defending Ultimate class champion Nasser Al-Attiyah. The Qatari exited the stage shortly after starting it due to a mechanical problem.
Challenger class leader Mitch Guthrie Jr. is so far nailing the right balance between protecting his advantage and maintaining race rhythm. The American’s cushion at the beginning of Stage Nine stood at half and hour but by the end of the day it had been slightly reduced to 28m35s.
“Everyone was pushing really hard so that makes it tough for us. We’re leading so we want to take care of the car but we also don’t want to lose too much time. I was going good until I made a mistake. I hit a rock pretty hard and I didn’t know if the car was OK so I wanted to take it easy until the finish.” – Mitch Guthrie Jr.
Getting closer to Guthrie Jr. on Stage Nine was second placed Cristina Gutiérrez, also driving a Taurus T3 Max. With the next three ranked drivers – Chaleco López,Rokas Baciuška and Austin Jones – also making time on the leader today it’s clear that this group intend on making it a race until the very end.
“It was a hard day with a lot of navigation and a lot of rocks. Chaleco (López) is pushing hard from the back. I’m happy because we could take some minutes from Mitch (Guthrie Jr.). The car is working perfectly and we still have three days to go.” – Cristina Gutiérrez
It was a tough stage for local favourite Dania Akeel who slipped to 26th overall after running into trouble between Ha’il and AlUla.
A one-two-three result on Stage Nine for Honda increased their advantage at the front of the Bike race. Overall leader Ricky Brabec leads Red Bull KTM Factory Racing’s pair of Kevin Benavides and Toby Price by a significant margin. With stages running out a third Dakar win for either Kevin or Toby is looking like an uphill task.
“I made one little mistake at one waypoint and lost a bit of ground there. Other than that the day’s been pretty good. I’m glad to be through it in one piece. It was really hard to see the stones in the sun.” – Toby Price
It’s also a long way back from Brabec to Husqvarna rider Luciano Benavides and Red Bull GasGas Factory Racing biker Daniel Sanders. Both these bikers have battled bravely for ten days of racing and are geared up for a final push.
“It was a rough day, but it’s another day closer to the finish. I tried my best at the start but I was struggling all day. It was important to just make it to the finish line in one piece. I had a few close calls so I decided to settle it down and just cruise on home.” – Daniel Sanders
Tomorrow’s Stage 10 puts plenty more rocks in the way of the convoy as they are tasked with a 371-kilometre loop around the AlUla bivouac. Watch out for race leaders playing it safe, but not too safe while their rivals launch attacks.