The fourth day of racing on the Dakar Rally had a distinct “the morning after the night before feel,” with many competitors, especially the privateer riders and drivers, still recovering from the torturous stage three that saw heat and sand dunes combine, slowing many to a crawl.
That forced the organisers to both delay (by 90 minutes) and shorten (by 40km) today's fourth stage, cutting it short at the mark originally intended to be the third checkpoint at 163km.
The resulting stage took the top bikers under two hours (not that you begrudge them an early finish seeing as it took some seven hours to clear yesterday's challenge, and that's without taking into account the links between stage and campsite!), as reigning champion Marc Coma won his first stage of the event.
Coma won the stage by two minutes (a commendable achievement given its relative brevity) over David Casteu, who in turn beat overall leader Cyril Despres by over a minute. The stage win sees Coma come back from two days of setbacks.
Sunday's stage saw Coma penalised 22 minutes for speeding through a village, an offence only discovered when the Spaniard gave his GPS unit to organisers for repairs. That was added to yesterday, as a herd of mechanical problems caused his engine to cut out, dropping another 21 minutes behind the overall leader.
However, with today's win, and despite the delays, Coma now finds himself just half a minute outside the overall top five, and seemingly in the sort of form that saw him obliterate the field a year ago, with ten stages left.
It was, by now, a familiar story in the quad race, as yesterday's stage winner encountered problems early, Sebastian Halpern stopping after only 15km with mechanical problems and immediately losing nine minutes, before he continued to fall further behind the stage leaders.
At the head of the field it was a battle between Argentina and the Czech Republic, with the Patronelli brothers chasing down Martin Plechaty for the stage win. For much of the stage the Plechaty was faster, with the Czech's lead peaking at three minutes at the second checkpoint at 111km.
The last 50km, however, saw the Argentinean charge, this time led by older brother Alejandro, as both brothers were able to overhaul Plechaty to take first and second on the stage with Marcos 1:06 behind, though still maintaining his lead at the top of the overall standings.
In the cars, it was a bizarre day.
From the live Iritrack timing, it looked like the BMW vs. VW battle again, with Stephane Peterhansel, who won yesterday's stage and took the overall lead in the process, swapping times with four of the works’ VW Race Touareg 2 machines.
But there was an invisible, stealthy challenge. From a Hummer of all things!
The Iritrack beacon on Robby Gordon's Hummer had failed, and as Peterhansel, Sainz, Miller, and the rest hurtled through the stage, the progress of the 2WD Monster sponsored machine was a mystery.
As the first cars crossed the finish line, it looked like Peterhansel, now arguably the X-Raid squad's only chance of overall victory after the retirement of Nani Roma after his accident yesterday, had won the stage, beating Nasser Al-Attiyah by over two minutes, the Qatari struggling with slow punctures on his VW
But then came Gordon, jumping to the lead of the stage by a single second, his teammate Robert Baldwin coming home eighth fastest to put two Hummers in the top 10 in a stage that finally suited the H3 Buggy after days of problems.
“Today's special stage was perfect for us with a lot of camel grass. It's on this type of terrain that the Hummer is doing great,” said Gordon. “Today was a good day. I am glad we managed to recover from yesterday. I got stuck twice yesterday and the engine overheated. We lost one hour. It's sad but the race is still long.”
“We have managed to reach the level of the best drivers in the desert but they are much better than we are in WRC-type stages. This year, we did not lose as much time as last year in these WRC special stages. The gap is smaller so it will be up to us to work even harder to win this raid.”
Stage Four Results
1. Marc Coma (KTM) 1h46:58
2. David Casteu (Sherco) +0h02:04
3. Cyril Despres (KTM) +0h03:14
4. Francisco Lopez Contardo (Aprilia) +0h05:06
5. Paulo GonÃ§alves (BMW) +0h06:59
1. Robby Gordon (Hummer) 1h40:21
2. Stephane Peterhansel (BMW) +0h00:01
3. Nasser Al-Attiyah (VW) +0h02:26
4. Carlos Sainz (VW) +0h03:04
5. Giniel De Villiers (VW) +0h04:14
1. Alejandro Patronelli (Yamaha) 2h13:29
2. Marcos Patronelli (Yamaha) +0h01:06
3. Martin Plechaty (Yamaha) +0h01:14
4. Juan Manuel Gonzalez (Yamaha) +0h06:52
5. Jorge Miguel Santamarina (Can-Am) +0h08:13
1. Vladimir Chagin (Kamaz) 1h53:36
2. Firdaus Kabirov (Kamaz) +0h07:44
3. Ilgizar Mardeev (Kamaz) +0h11:50
4. Martin Macik (Liaz) +0h21:23
5. Marcel Van Vliet (Ginaf) +0h22:11
Overall Standings After Stage Four
1. Cyril Despres (KTM) 10h44:16
2. David Casteu (Sherco) +0h08:53
3. Helder Rodrigues (Yamaha) +0h23:45
4. Luca Manca (KTM) +0h29:51
5. Alain Duclos (KTM) +0h38:20
1. Stephane Peterhansel (BMW) 10h54:50
2. Carlos Sainz (VW) +0h07:36
3. Nasser Al-Attiyah (VW) +0h09:56
4. Mark Miller (VW) +0h19:25
5. Alfie Cox (Nissan) +0h59:30
1. Marcos Patronelli (Yamaha) 13h08:13
2. Alejandro Patronelli (Yamaha) +0h08:15
3. Sebastian Halpern (Yamaha) +0h26:50
4. Jorge Miguel Santamarina (Can-Am) +0h30:55
5. Juan Manuel Gonzalez (Yamaha) +0h34:19
1. Vladimir Chagin (Kamaz) 12h31:23
2. Firdaus Kabirov (Kamaz) +0h26:27
3. Marcel Van Vliet (Ginaf) +2h24:33
4. Ilgizar Mardeev (Kamaz) +2h59:03
5. Johan Elfrink (Mercedes) +3h02:42