Matthias Walkner (Red Bull KTM) leads, for the first time. The competition has been close, but then came Stage 10 and chaos ensued with heavy crashes and top contenders lost in the dunes. It’s turned the race on its head…
Day 7 La Paz – Uyuni
Can there be a quiet day in Dakar? Well, Day 7 was less disruptive at least. Joan Barreda (Monster Energy Honda) again pushed to close the gap to the lead. On a 425km special held over sand and mud at altitudes well over 3500m he took command and gained three minutes on Adrien Van Beveren (Yamalube Yamaha) who in placing runner-up in the stage took the lead of the rally (again) Kevin Benavides (Monster Energy Honda) came in a safe third. But the top three are separated by only a few minutes, Van Beveren three minutes ahead of Benevides, nearly five minutes ahead of Barreda with Walkner eight minutes behind. The expected charge from Toby Price (Red Bull KTM) hasn’t come (yet?) and he’s placed fifth a chunky 13 minutes behind the lead. However, at the finish it was revealed Barreda had crashed and badly hurt his knee in the last kilometres of the day – a question mark hung over his fitness for the days to come.
Day 8 Uyuni – Tupizia
Barreda’s efforts in Stage 7 indeed cost him dear in Stage 8 as he lost 12 minutes to the day’s winner, Antoine Meo (Red Bull KTM) as he nursed his injured knee. However, teammate Benavides had a great day coming in 4th but well ahead of Van Beveren to close the gap on the lead to just 22 seconds. Ricky Brabec (Monster Energy Honda) found his mojo to chase Meo home, missing out on the win by just 68 seconds. But at least Price shifted it up a gear, placing third and almost halving his gap to the lead to 7:35 minutes. Poor Barreda went from challenging for the lead to an 8-minute deficit. Still in the running though, more than could be said for the unfortunate Xavier de Soltrait (Yamalube Yamaha) who crashed out of the top-10 and the rally just as he was getting the best results of his career.
Day 9 Cancelled
Day 10 Salta – Belén
After poor weather led to the cancellation of Stage 9 (the riders still needed to make a 500km liaison to the start of Stage 10), the Dakar really bit back with Stage 10. A long stage, with 242km of liaisons plus two specials totaling 513km, the stage brought back the sand with a vengeance, significantly requiring a lot of off-piste navigation. In the first special the overall lead changed again as Benavides rode strong turning his 22-second deficit to a near-6-minute advantage over Van Beveren (who precipitously commented at the check that he was concerned about crashing in the testing terrain). But the second special was where the damage really came. Barreda, Benavides, Price, Meo and others all got lost, so lost the organiser’s helicopter had to point the direction to the finish. Meanwhile Van Beveren and Walkner made a perfect navigation, only for Van Beveren to crash just kilometres from the end of the special, breaking his collarbone (plus other injuries) to exit the rally just when he had what could have been an unassailable lead. Van Beveren’s exit gave Walkner his first stage win of the year and the overall lead by the biggest margin yet. When the lost boys finally made it to the finish the shakeout put Barreda into second but a whopping 39 minutes back (practically ten times the best lead gained up until now), with Benavides third at 41 minutes and in fourth last year’s third place man, Gerard Farres (Himoinsa Racing Team), an experienced rider (this is his 11th Dakar) who has quietly but consistently been driving himself higher and higher up the leaderboard.