Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Stage 9 Moto Wrap Up

Well, well, well, what a difference a day makes. Today’s relatively short loop through the Atacama dunes to the north of Copiapo may have appeared innocuous. It was anything but. A patchwork of early morning fog descended upon the riders like the blurry eyed haze of sleepless nights. Add to that the confusion of a group start, ten at a time, and we start to get a glimpse of what may have been the contributing factors that led all but one of the riders from the first wave astray and out chasing phantoms in the desert.

Certainly much blame will be bandied about but needless to say, when a lonely Helder Rodrigues took a particular turn, the rest of the leading pack had been convinced that he was off on a fool’s errand and continued on their erroneous path. However, they had no idea how right Helder was as they meandered about looking for navigational clues as to their whereabouts. Soon after, the lead pack turned around only to be met en route, by the second wave of riders that had started five minutes later. At that point, the damage was done. Rodrigues had long pinned the throttle on his Yamaha and stormed off to the lead.

What nerve it must have taken for the young Portuguese rider to leave a pack consisting of the brain trust of modern day rallying strategic experience to strike off on his own, trusting his navigation instead of following the pack, brimming with confidence while suppressing the unimaginable feelings of self-doubt. Through the early part of his performance, once it was determined how Rodrigues had outfoxed his main rivals, he was dubbed the modern day ‘Vasco da Gama’ of rally navigation by those following the time sheets like racing junkies at the off track betting.

Waypoint 1 times determined the extent of the navigational damage as overall rally leaders Marc Coma and Cyril Despres clocked times slotting them in 59th and 58th places respectively behind the 57th placed Jincheng of Argentina’s Pablo Oscar Pascual. The sharp end of the timing lists showcased a refreshing crop of riders with names like Bethys, Salvatierra, Schroder, and Pizzolito battling it out with veterans Verhoeven, Rodrigues, and Casteu.

Sitting in a lowly starting position, a quiet, unassuming, unshakable American, named Jonah Street was determined to fight on and not allow the issues of the previous days to cloud his mind. Having been slotted in a starting position behind 44 other riders when the signal was given, Street wasted no time as he began his march toward the front.

Picking off dozens of riders in short order, Jonah smelled blood and began to stalk his prey like a hungry lion following the trail of a wounded gazelle. 45th, 13th, 5th, 2nd, Jonah posted some of the quickest waypoint to waypoint times of the entire field. After two days of mechanical woes resulting in significant time loss, Jonah’s mechanic Niles Follin had forsaken sleep in order to provide the most thoroughly prepared and supremely capable platform to propel Jonah to the front…and to the front he went. Once in second place, the GYTR Yamaha rider could practically taste his next meal. Rodrigues was the carrot on the end of Street’s stick and Jonah was not to be denied, not today, not again.

By waypoint 4, the now second place Jonah was only 2’50” behind the stage leader, Portugal’s early stage hero, Helder Rodrigues. At waypoint 5, the gap had closed a further 21” to put Jonah within 2’29” of Rodrigues. The quiet lion waited no longer to pounce and pounce he did. At checkpoint 2, waypoint 6, Jonah had devoured the time gap and left Helder scratching his head, 47” back in second place. Jonah had turned up the wick as the relative times of the next fastest riders, Rodrigues, Verhoeven and Casteu remained flat between waypoint 5 and waypoint 6.

At the finish, leaving nothing but bare, picked bones in his wake, the quiet American had demolished the field and put his stamp on the day by a massive 3’38” over second place, Frans Verhoeven on the Speedbrain BMW.  Interestingly all three top riders on today’s stage had overcome recent adversity to pluck the top spots, Verhoeven changing an engine during yesterday’s stage and third place David Casteu enjoying a relatively trouble free day after hours lost on previous stages due to a new, but temperamental gearbox in his lovely little Sherco.

The rally superstars were not too far down to fight back however. KTM rivals Cyril Despres and Marc Coma had recovered early enough to pick their way back into the top ten with Coma again planting himself on Despres’ rear wheel much to the annoyance of the Dakar incumbent. Solidly recovering into the top ten along with the KTM duo was Norway’s Pal Anders Ullevalsetter becoming more and more comfortable with his new KTM 450 Rally, and Chilean superstar, Francisco Lopez on his Aprilia.

Behind the Yamaha of Street, the BMW of Verhoeven, and the Sherco of Casteu, the top ten filled out with Spain’s Gerard Farres Guell aboard an Aprilia in 4th, followed by his countryman, Jordi Viladoms on his Yamaha in 5th.

Perhaps kick starting the career of a new, young superstar, an excellent 6th place result for Chile’s Daniel Gouet may force fellow Chilean, Chaleco Lopez to allow some elbow room at the top for the young upstart and his Honda. In came the superstars, Despres, Ullevalsetter, Coma, and Lopez to round out the top ten.

Unfortunately, when the fortunes turned for Helder Rodrigues, they really turned. After navigating so flawlessly and confidently from the start, Rodrigues made a crucial error that not only saw him deviate in the wrong direction by 9 kilometers, but to add insult to injury, the Yamaha hopeful ran out of petrol literally evaporating any chance of recovering a decent result. It is reported that Jake Smith, Felipe Prohens, and perhaps some other generous rally compatriots came to Rodrigues’ rescue and gave him some much needed fuel to finish the day a disastrous 27’17” back from the lead.

In the Ladies Cup, Sweden’s Annie Seel bested the bunch for a 36th place finish followed by 42nd place Laia Sanz less than 2 minutes back.

How long must it have been since the highest finish that a KTM machine could muster was 7th place? The top ten finishers of Stage 9 include the products of no less than six different manufacturers. Yamaha, BMW, Sherco, Aprilia, Honda, and of course KTM…if this is the result of the new 450 regulations, then a well deserved congratulations is to be given to the ASO for undertaking the tough decision and well done to the teams and manufacturers who have responded and perhaps somewhat reluctantly embraced the new rules.

Days such as this display that the leaders in the rally world are not infallible, and while no one likes to see them falter, any tightening of the field or opportunities for others to come to the forefront and shine are always welcomed by the fans and followers of the enigma that is cross country rallying. As was mentioned in yesterday’s wrap up, looks can be deceiving and certainly the short distance of Stage 9 has proven that in spades.

Attention now turns to the few remaining stages in this, the 2011 edition of the Dakar rally. We leave Chile with fond memories of the legions of warm and welcoming fans and an overall job well done. Headed off the circus is for a very long, very early liaison that will see the bikes off from Copiapo at 4:30am for a 686km connection, back across the border into Argentina, and to the start of a 176km special through the Argentine Atacama. With the end of Stage 9, we must bid adieu to Chile. Gracias Chile. Usted ha sido un anfitrión maravilloso! In my worst translated Spanish, Thank you Chile, you have been a wonderful host!


No comments:

Post a Comment