Monday, January 10, 2011

Stage 8 Moto Wrap Up

The 'take no prisoners' attitude of the 2011 Dakar Rally continues with its latest victims being Paulo Goncalves and Frans Verhoeven of the BMW Speedbrain Team. Goncalves suffered a crash just before CP1. The Portuguese rider continued to the checkpoint complaining of shoulder pain. When checked by the medical team, his fears were confirmed and he was diagnosed with a broken collarbone. With that, Goncalves, sadly, is out of the rally. Sources also indicate that around the same position the 450 BMW engine of Frans Verhoeven packed up and called it a day. Amazingly, it was reported that Verhoeven was able to swap engines with Goncalves' now pilotless bike and the Belgian continued on losing 4h18'10". Not too bad considering an entire engine swap in the middle of the desolate Atacama Desert.

The early going was somewhat predictable with the top three starters playing ‘duck-duck-goose’ with the lead position. KTM Factory rider and overall rally leader, Marc Coma won out inheriting the lead, fellow KTM Factory rider, Cyril Despres kept his comfortable seat in second, while Chilean Aprilia rider, Francisco ‘Chaleco’ Lopez found himself without a chair and thus, fell to third on stage by WP1. The lead pack maintained this order through the rest of the stage although with iriTrack issues, Lopez’s position was difficult to ascertain after he passed waypoint 6. So too did Coma encounter tracking issues very late in the stage. Once the final times posted, it was clear that the three rally leaders rode together into the stage end.

After the stage, a visibly annoyed Cyril Despres commented about Marc Coma’s tactic of planting himself on the back wheel of Despres and following him home letting Despres pull the double duty of setting the pace physically on stage while doing the navigational duties for both. Such is the ruthless nature of top level motorsports. With his overall lead of 9’19”, Coma no longer needs to set the pace. Keeping Cyril Despres in sight is enough to best the Andorran for the top honors in this year’s rally provided that neither come afoul of any mechanical or physical issues.

The remaining riders through the top ten simply could not keep the lightning pace of the three top rally superstars. Yamaha’s Helder Rodrigues (+8’38”), Norwegian KTM pilot, Pal Anders Ullevalsetter (+25’03”), and KTM Factory rider, Ruben Faria (+29’06”) simply did not have the muster to chase down the lead boys and finished 4th, 5th, and 6th respectively.  Rounding out the top 10 were Alain Duclos (Aprilia), Jean De Acevedo (KTM), Juan Pedrero (KTM), and in amazingly impressive and consistent form for his first ever Dakar, American Quinn Cody on the Honda Team Europe CRF450.

The stage proved to be a cruel mistress for more than a few today. Of course we have the misfortunes of the BMW Speedbrain contingent, but as if yesterday’s headaches were not enough, American Jonah Street clouded a rock, damaged a front wheel and lost use of his brakes. To add insult to injury the magnetic sensor, from which all the speed information is taken for the navigation equipment, also sustained damaged and after making repairs on piste, Jonah completed the stage dropping 1h27’04” from Coma, doing so without brakes or navigational functionality. Fortunately for Jonah, he looks to have only dropped one position in the overall rankings.

Reports are also surfacing that the young Slovakian hopeful Stefan Svitko has had ignition troubles on stage and is broken down. Indeed after hovering around 6th fastest through the early part of the stage, he suddenly disappeared from the time sheets after passing through waypoint 7. It is also being reported that the condition is repairable and although losing considerable time, Svitko should be able to continue.

French rider David Casteu was notably off the pace today finishing the stage in 18th place, 52’48” behind the winner. Currently sitting over 9 hours back from Coma in the overall standings, perhaps the maturity and experience of the Frenchman dictates that a rally finish is better than further stressing the gearbox of his Sherco which has already given him significant problems on more than one stage.

Top ladies honors today go to Laia Sanz who, like Quinn Cody, continues to impress on her first Dakar Rally. Sanz and Cody are showing that perhaps the pokey little Honda CRF450 is the machine to have for first time Dakar riders. Sanz edged out Sweden’s own Rally Princess, Annie Seel, whose courageous day saw her competitive from the start even while battling a severe stomach illness and high fever. Sanz finished the stage in 42nd place, 30’51” ahead of the determined Seel.

As the stages begin to come down to the wire, the riders can no longer expect to make up lost times on subsequent days. With a new engine going in tonight, expect KTM’s Marc Coma to consolidate rather than stretch out the lead. Also expect Cyril Despres and Chaleco Lopez to fight, tooth and nail, in an attempt to grab back any time they can from Coma. The top three places overall span just over 22 minutes, well with pouncing time should Coma stumble with any sort of difficulty. While the rally moves into its latter half, it is far from over and at this point, there is enough time for some major changes to the leader board.

While the picturesque views and endlessly fluctuating sands are certainly alluring, in the parched expanse of the desert, looks are commonly deceiving. Stage 8 has proven to be too big an adversary for some and for those left struggling on the way to Copiapo, Stage 9, a deceptively short 235km, will be of little consolation as the loop from Copiapo back to Copiapo consists of long stretches of the ominous Atacama dunes just waiting to consume the next batch of those who dare enter its foreboding sanctum.

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