Monday, January 10, 2011

Stage 7 Moto Wrap Up

Special Stage 7 of the 2011 Dakar Rally was short and sweet or perhaps torturous depending on for whom you may be cheering along. Perhaps it was a visit from Chilean President Sebastián Piñera that helped propel Francisco ‘Chaleco’ Lopez to storm up from a 6th place start to take his first stage win in this edition of the rally on his seemingly bulletproof Aprilia.

Perhaps too Lopez figured that enough Chilean stages passed the superstar by that it was time to steal the day…and steal the day he did, in commanding fashion. Lopez wasted little time moving to the front of the pack picking off the big names like Marc Coma, Ruben Faria, and Cyril Despres along the way. By waypoint 3, Lopez stretched out a 1’03” lead over second place Cyril Despres. Stage opener Helder Rodrigues slipped down the order falling to an eventual 4th place at the end of the special.

Stage 7 was odd in that it was shortened considerably from its original, massive 631km special, the longest on the rally, to 272km, one of the shortest as the Dakar freight train steamed its way from its northernmost point in Arica down the Pacific Coast to “La Perla del Norte” and South American Dakar mainstay, Antofagasta. The official reason for the course change was due to the fact that stages 5 and 6 had been so difficult as to force as many as 50 competitors to spend a night out on the piste and many onto the withdrawal list.

More than a few top riders complained about this concession to the competitors having difficulty keeping up as a not very Dakar-esque decision. Venerable top competitor Pal Anders Ullevalsetter described this as removing the “soul of the Dakar”. This is not surprising as it is in these very difficult situations that the Norwegian starts to shine when others begin to falter. However you feel about the course change, it was Chaleco’s day to shine and shine he did. Never looking back after taking the lead at WP3, Lopez rocketed to the stage completion a full 2’21” over second place finisher, KTM factory pilot, Cyril Despres. Today’s win further strengthens Lopez’s grip on third place overall and moved him a few minutes closer to Despres in the overall standings led by today’s third place stage finisher, Marc Coma also on a factory KTM.

Rounding out the top ten stage finishers were Yamaha’s Helder Rodrigues in 4th, factory KTM rider and water carrier for Cyril Despres, Ruben Faria in 5th, and Slovakian, Svitko Stefan in 6th. Team Bianchi Prata’s Paulo Goncalves recovered from his disastrous stage 6 troubles for a respectable 7th place finish followed by a disappointed Ullevalsetter in 8th, BMW Speedbrain’s Frans Verhoeven in 9th, and water carrier for Marc Coma Juan Pedrero who put in another solid, consistent appearance for 10th place.

Where quite a few did not like the organizations decision to shorten the stage, it must have come as a blessing in disguise for GYTR Yamaha rider Jonah Street who was stopped between WP2 and WP3 with what he originally thought was a rally ending engine failure. With the threat of a sweeper truck looming, Jonah, not one to sit and wait, decided to turn the Chilean desert into a repair shop by tearing into his mount. He must have been relieved to discover that his motor was not only fine; it was able to carry him through to the stage end at a fever pitch but what plagued him was an electric gremlin that stopped Jonah in the desert for a considerable amount of time. Much to the delight of his followers, Jonah was able to tell the sweeper truck to go pound sand and continue on under his own power and cut his losses. Always the gentlemen, sources tell RallyRaidReview that his first order of business was to contact his wife through the ASO to make sure she knew not to worry when he didn’t turn up as expected on the timing sheets.

Consideration like that continually enforces his image as a true champion of rally spirit. So true this is also for Tina Meier with the Sherco rider helping along fellow female rider and competitor for the women’s honors, Annie Seel who had emerged from the rest day not rested, but nursing a stomach illness and high fever. Dogged determination will not allow riders like Annie Seel to stop. Like the terminator of rally, Seel keeps on against nearly all hurdles found in her way.

The determination award for stage 7 must go to Sweden’s Ronnie Bodinger who, nursing a hurt shoulder and possible fractured ribs sustained in a previous fall, rode with one arm for nearly the entire stage. Bodinger described, on his blog, having to stop often to clean the dust from his goggles as it was attracted by the tears that he was crying from pain. Bodinger nursed himself to the end of the stage in 102nd place. Such is the determination to finish what is often a lifetime dream for many competitors.

Indeed it certainly not a lack of determination that ended the rally of KTM 150 rider Luis Belaustegui. It was rumored that rider Luis Belaustegui took the start of Stage 6 just after a very late arrival from stage 5. Without any sleep, Belaustegui started the stage only to find a comfortable spot to stop and get some much needed sleep before continuing on through to the end in Arica. Unfortunately for Luis, he arrived too late into the bivouac on the rest day and was not permitted to continue. Devastatingly, his rally is over.

For those that have endured through the difficult stages leading up to the rest day, the Dakar continues on and begins its southerly plunge down through Chile on its way back to Buenos Aires. Over halfway through the rally now, the competitors can expect some very difficult and engine stressing stages in the dunes of the Atacama Desert with both upcoming stage 8 and 9 including more and more kilometers of pure sand delight. Picturesque for the fans and always appreciated and respected by the riders, the upcoming dunes will soon prove both a daunting challenge and also whether the current crop of 450cc engines are up to the task and the revs required. Stage 8 beings with a long 268km liaison with the first bikes leaving at 5:05am local time followed by an ominous 508km special stage as we move from Antofagasta to Copiapo. With Chaleco opening the stage and leading the way, expect perhaps the most exciting stage of the rally.

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