It was Stage 4 that turned last year’s Dakar Rally on its head, and 2018 has been no different.
A spinal injury has forced reigning motorcycle class winner Sam Sunderland out of the event, while Yamaha claimed a 1-2 on the stage that put France’s Adrien Van Beveren into the lead.
Toby Price lost 13 minutes on the Yamaha rider but now sits sixth overall, just 10 minutes adrift, after his five minute penalty was rescinded by officials.
In the car category, Peugeot’s Sebastien Loeb raced to his first stage win of 2018 but the day was a disaster for Toyota, with chief challenger Nasser Al-Attiyah losing almost an hour.
The 330km special stage in Peru saw the field start in groups on a beach before heading into a demanding 100km stretch of sand dunes, taking competitors over 2000m above sea level for the first time on this year’s event, before finishing back in San Juan de Marcona.
Sunderland landed heavily in a big hole while searching for the second control waypoints on the stage, the impact compressing his spine.
The Englishman continued on but the pain, plus a loss of sensation in his legs, saw him stop and request medical assistance.
“He felt a sharp pain in his back immediately, but carried on for another 5km before stopping again due to the pain and a lack of feeling in his legs,” KTM team manager Alex Doringer told Motorcycle News.
“He said that the feeling in his legs has returned, but he will now be transferred to Lima for more tests.”
In a twist of fate, Stage 4 last year was when then-reigning winner Price crashed out of the event, misfortune striking KTM’s champion on the same day two years in a row.
Sunderland’s exit leaves KTM’s fortunes resting with Price and Matthias Walkner as the Austrian marque pursues an 18th-straight victory.
His five-minute penalty from Stage 3 overturned, Price and Walkner were among a gaggle of riders within five minutes of the lead at the final waypoint, but the Australian would lose a further seven minutes before reaching the finish.
“That was the most difficult day so far,” Price said.
“We thought by starting in a group it would be like a nice day out riding with your friends but as soon as we got to the dunes, the going got really tough.
“The worst thing was the sand was really unpredictable – there were loads of soft patches that were hard to see and if you were the first rider to hit them you ended up dropping right back.
“The group I was in missed a waypoint so we lost a fair amount of time getting back on track. As a positive I finished the stage in one piece, I’m in a good start position for tomorrow so I’ll crack on and see if I can claw back some time then.”
Fellow Australian Rodney Faggotter moved into the top 20 overall on a day his factory Yamaha teammates celebrated.
Van Beveren and Xavier De Soultrait traded the lead for much of the way, the former pulling a five-minute margin in the run to the finish.
“It’s really special,” Van Beveren said.
“I told myself I had to be calm and wait for the moment to pass the riders in front of me. When we arrived in the dunes, I had the opportunity to come back.
“I’m happy because I came back and caught everybody and then I opened the way for more than one hundred kilometres in the end.”
Things aren’t looking as good for the third Australian on the event, Scott Britnell.
The Dakar debutant sat 77th overall heading into the fourth stage, but the official results have not shown him passing any waypoints on the test.
MOTORCYCLE STANDINGS AFTER STAGE 4
1. Adrien van Beveren (Yamaha) 11hr 3min 23sec
2. Pablo Quintanilla (Husqvarna) +1min 55sec
3. Kevin Benavides (Honda) +3min 15sec
4. Matthias Walkner (KTM) +5min 23sec
5. Xavier de Soultrait (Yamaha) +7min 34sec
6. TOBY PRICE (KTM) +10min 14sec
7 Jose Ignacio Cornejo (Honda) +12min 6sec
8. Franco Caimi (Yamaha) +12min 48sec
9. Gerard Farres (KTM) +13min 5sec
10. Antoine Meo (KTM) +13min 47sec
Toby Price of Australia.Source: AP
Stage 4 wasn’t a test that Loeb was supposed to win; the dunes and off-piste navigation were meant to favour the more experienced Dakar runners.
Instead, the nine-time World Rally Champion headed the field at every waypoint but one, beating home fellow Peugeot teammate and WRC legend Carlos Sainz by 1m35s.
The French machines were in a class of their own on the stage, Stephane Peterhansel completing a sweep of the top three to retain the overall lead, with the next car over half a minute behind.
Peugeot’s pursuit of a swansong win lie with Loeb, Sainz and Peterhansel, as early Rally leader Cyril Despres broke a wheel and his rear suspension 180km into the test and has yet to make it to the following waypoint.
Toyota’s Dakar hoodoo struck again on Stage 4, both Al-Attiyah and Giniel De Villiers losing many minutes.
The Qatari driver stopped his Hilux twice on the stage, eventually losing a total of 54 minutes to Loeb.
Although Al-Attiyah still sits fourth overall, the 58 minute deficit leaves his and Toyota’s hopes of overall victory reliant on trouble striking all three of the leading Peugeots.
CAR STANDINGS AFTER STAGE 4
1. Stephane Peterhansel, Jean-Paul Cottret (Peugeot) 10hr 36min 7sec
2. Sebastien Loeb, Daniel Elena (Peugeot) +6min 55sec
3. Carlos Sainz, Lucas Cruz (Peugeot) +13min 6sec
4. Nasser Al-Attiyah, Mathieu Baumel (Toyota) +58min 48sec
5. Bernhard ten Brinke, Michel Perin (Toyota) +1hr 10min 24sec
6. Eugenio Amos, Sebastien Delaunay (2WD) +1hr 19min 42sec
7. Khalid Al Qassimi, Xavier Panseri (Peugeot) +1hr 21min 9sec
8. Giniel de Villiers, Dirk von Zitzewitz (Toyota) +1hr 21min 47sec
9. Martin Prokop, Jan Tomanek (Ford) +1hr 22min 44sec
10. Jakub Przygonski, Tom Colsoul (Mini) +1hr 35min 30sec