Rolling with the punches and bouncing back in style after a difficult day yesterday, Sam Sunderland has arguably delivered his best performance of the Dakar Rally so far with victory on a seriously tough stage eight.
Remarkably, it’s Sam’s first stage win of the 2022 rally, and his first for GASGAS Factory Racing, with the Brit’s impressive ride seeing him return to the top of the provisional classification. Pablo Quintanilla finished just under three minutes behind Sunderland while second-placed overall Matthias Walkner was third. The leader going into the stage Adrien Van Beveren dropped to third in the overall classification after finishing the eighth stage in 9th, 10 minutes behind Sunderland.
The Dakar Rally heads into its final stretch and today, with the lengthiest stage of this edition, at 830 km, the mileage count takes a hefty leap forward. On the agenda were 395 kilometres of special stage across the southern part of Saudi Arabia, with plenty of sand and a lot of dunes to be tackled. From Al Dawadimi it was on to Wadi Ad-Dawasir, on a day featuring more kilometres of link section than the special stage. The most southerly located bivouac in this Dakar will be the destination for two stages: tomorrow, a new looping stage will see competitors charter territory in the vast Empty Quarter.
Undoubtedly, Sam Sunderland’s determination and his ability to keep on keeping on, even when faced with ongoing Dakar challenges, has returned to the top of the leaderboard. Relieved after taking his first win of the rally, Sunderland will be back in the hot seat tomorrow as the rider that has the unenviable task of opening the stage.
“That was a really challenging stage today. There was a lot of sand early on but then near the end there were a lot of canyons to navigate through,” Sunderland said. “You had to be really patient and choose the right one as it would be so easy to get lost and lose time. The guys opening, fortunately, did a great job, which made things a little easier for me but after leading out yesterday, I know how tough that can be. Early on I was pushing hard and I was a bit too aggressive with a few small crashes in the sand so I had to settle down a bit, get into a rhythm, and it paid off as I was able to take the stage win. We have some long days ahead, but today’s result is just what I needed after everything that happened yesterday.”
Pablo Quintanilla posted second place today at the finish-line in Wadi Ad-Dawasir, clawing back time and setting up the chance of making the top step of the final podium.
“Today was a good day for me,” Quintanilla said. “I took advantage of the starting position that I had and I finished the stage second and knocked off sometime in the general standings. I’m very pleased. In the second part of the race we have been taking it day by day and reducing the time. The times are very tight and there are still four special stages to go. I’m calm, enjoying myself and focused on having a good race each day.”
Making the best use of his later start position, Matthias Walkner pushed hard right from the beginning this morning and was soon working his way through the field. Using his skill and experience, the Austrian was able to successfully complete the stage as third fastest, just over four minutes behind current rally leader Sam Sunderland. Although he will set off near the front on Tuesday’s stage nine, Matthias will start six minutes behind Sunderland and will use the opportunity to chase down his rival and make up those valuable minutes.
“Every day at the moment is critical because you can win or lose so much time on every stage,” Walkner explained. “Thankfully today went well for me, I was able to push all the way from the back. I gave my all out there today – everything I had – so I’m pleased to come away with third place and close in on the overall leader again. There are four more days left to go and with things so close it is more important than ever to complete each stage without making any big mistakes. I’ll do my best to keep focused and concentrate on the days ahead.”
Ricky Brabec also set a fierce pace, registering the day’s fourth-best time, 6’44” behind Sunderland. Tomorrow, the American should be able to use tomorrow’s position to his advantage to gnaw into the time of his direct rivals.
“I rode alone all day, hoping to catch the group, but I couldn’t. I wish I was at the front… I wish I was upfront battling with the top five,” Brabec said, “The first seven are within six minutes of each other! For our part, we’ll keep pushing for the remaining days; tomorrow could be a good day. We’ll see what happens… anything can happen in this Dakar.”
A sixth-place result on stage eight has moved Toby Price one place further up the provisional overall leaderboard to ninth, just over 30 minutes down on the leader. With times closing up at the top of the rankings, and four more long days left to race, the experienced Aussie knows that a podium result is still well within his reach.
“It wasn’t too bad today,” Price said. “I got through most of the stage pretty well, I did make a couple of mistakes, but it’s hard to be absolutely perfect out there. The liaisons from today have meant it’s been a really long day in the saddle. All-in-all the bike was really good though and I’m ready for another day.”
Overnight leader Adrien Van Beveren’s roadbook mechanism stopped working, which forced the Frenchman to operate his navigational device by hand. Unfazed by the additional challenge, the experienced rally racer continued to maintain his high pace, resulting in a strong, ninth-place finish.
“Another consistent day for me but not an easy one,” Van Beveren lamented. “The mechanism on my roadbook stopped working so I had to turn it by hand, which was tricky at times, but it was ok. Otherwise, it has been a solid day. I gave my best as always and I’m really happy with my riding so far in the rally. It’s been another good stage for me and I’m looking forward to tomorrow, which looks like it will be a lot slower speed and with more navigation.”
The Wadi Ad-Dawasir loop, some 491 kilometres in total, including 287 kilometres of timed special stage, will pass through a fairly unfamiliar area: the Arabian Peninsula’s Empty Quarter. Mountains and tracks between canyons will require a radically different riding style to the approach used until now. Less sand, but higher difficulty level, especially regarding the navigation.
STAGE 8 TOP 20 RESULTS
TOP 20 OVERALL STANDINGS FOLLOWING STAGE 8