SAKAKA, Saudi Arabia: Toyota’s driver Yazeed Al Rajhi of Saudi Arabia and co-driver Dirk Von Zitzewitz of Germany compete during stage 7 of the Dakar Rally 2021, between Saudi Arabia’s northern cities of Hail and Sakaka yesterday. – AFP

SAKAKA, Saudi Arabia: Toyota’s Saudi driver Yazeed Al-Rajhi took the Dakar Rally marathon seventh stage honors yesterday, the home hope denying Stephane Peterhansel, the overall leader in pursuit of his 14th title. Mini driver Peterhansel was on target to cross the line first at the end of the arduous 453km timed special featuring sand mountains between Ha’il and Sakaka.

But Al-Rajhi had other ideas, and with the benefit of his experienced co-driver Dirk Von Zitzewitz, an 18-Dakar veteran, he took command around 100km out. He secured his first stage win in the event since 2015 and his Dakar debut with 48sec to spare over Peterhansel, with Carlos Sainz third at 1min 15sec. In fourth came Qatari Nasser Al-Attiyah, who is now 7min 53sec behind Peterhansel in the overall standings with last year’s champion Sainz over 40 minutes adrift in third.

Peterhansel, 55, first competed in the Dakar in 1988, the year leader Ari Vatanen’s Peugeot 405 was infamously stolen in Bamako, with a ransom for its return demanded. It turned up eventually, but too late for Vatanen. Since then Peterhansel has made motorsport’s toughest test an annual pilgrimage, and with 13 wins on both two and four wheels he has rightly earned his nickname ‘Monsieur Dakar’.

He now has six podium finishes in seven stages and will be hoping to get his first win of 2021 on the board on Monday’s eighth stage which sees the Dakar travelling circus heading west from Sakaka to the Red Sea resort of Neom. In the motorbike category, defending motorbike champion Ricky Brabec took the seventh stage win in a time of 4hr 37mins 44sec. The American, winner of the prologue, came in 2mins 07sec clear of Honda’s Chilean rider Jose Ignacio Cornejo, the new overall leader.

But only by one second from Toby Price (KTM) with Sam Sunderland, the British 2017 champion, in third at 2min 11sec. Overnight leader Xavier de Soultrait slipped to fourth, 2min 34sec off the pace. Botswanan Ross Branch suffered a spectacular spill from his Yamaha early in the stage but thankfully escaped uninjured.

Rally without petrol
Mike Horn made his name by walking to some of the world’s remotest spots but as the Dakar Rally resumed yesterday, he is in a diesel car, trying to navigate the Saudi Arabian desert with the aim of “conserving the planet”. Horn, a 54-year-old Swiss based South African, is famed for exploits that include circling the Equator without using any motorized transport and walking to the North Pole in winter without dogs or motor vehicles.

He is competing in his second Dakar Rally, as navigator for veteran French driver Cyril Despres, in a traditional diesel-powered car with the objective of making such cars obsolete. In addition to competing, the car is designed to collect data as part of a project named Gen-Z which aims to enter a competitive hydrogen-powered car in the 2023 rally.

The car has been fitted with sensors by the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) which plans to manufacture the prototype that will run on an electric motor powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. “There’s a real goal behind all this, and it’s essential,” said the 46-year-old Despres, who is in his 21st Dakar rally and has won the motorbike category five times. “That’s new for me.”

Horn first raced last year, when he and Despres lasted three stages. The explorer took heavy criticism for participating in a rally with a notorious carbon footprint. “There are three things that made me come back,” he said: “First of all the human adventure, then the competition, I like to win and to reach the end of my expeditions and of course collect data for research and for future generations.” “I can play an important part in changing the way we participate in motor sports,” said Horn. “To conserve the planet to be able to leave a future to the younger generation is one of my life missions.”

‘Easier in Afrikaans’
With 55 cars still running and six of the 12 stages remaining, Horn and Despres are 17th in their 340 horsepower Peugeot, 3 hours 42 minutes and 59 seconds behind Peterhansel. Despres said it was important to compete. “If we drive at 50 percent of the speed required to be with the best, the CEA will not be able to make a fuel cell with the power needed to win. We have to push as hard as we can to make this data real,” he said. For the moment, their biggest problem is navigation. “Last year we were only able to do three stages,” said Horn. “I couldn’t learn navigation with the roadbook in only three stages. Besides I have to do it in French, it would be easier for me to do it in Afrikaans.”

He said that navigating in a rally field was different from crossing remote regions alone on foot. “When you walk where no one has ever walked before it’s different from when you have 40 cars in front of you,” he said. “I have to be able to look up from the roadbook to look outside, find the sun or a line of dunes to find my way around.”

They are accompanied in Saudi Arabia by Matthieu Parent of Vaison Sport, a French company that specializes in building prototype race cars. “We need to create a new vehicle around the fuel cell,” Parent said. “To manufacture a vehicle that emits only water vapor and capable of winning the Dakar in 2023 is tough, but it is possible.” – AFP