France’s Stéphane Peterhansel is now a 12-time champion of the world’s toughest rally, the Dakar. He safely navigated his Peugeot 2008 DKR through a tricky final set of stages to be the first man to reach the finish line in Rosario on Saturday. The six-time former motorbike category champion completed his quest for yet another Dakar triumph at the 2016 event with a comfortable victory margin of 34m58s over 2015 victor Nasser Al-Attiyah.
Unquestionably the most consistent of all the runner and riders, Peterhansel maintained great pace throughout the arduous 5,700 mile marathon whilst successfully steering clear of any of the major accidents and mechanical failures that blighted so many of his closest rivals.
The 2016 edition of motorsport’s most gruelling challenge was always going to be defined the fierce inter-team rivalry between 2015 winners Mini and a Peugeot team searching for its first victory since 1990. However, despite their status as defending champions, it was Mini who found themselves on the back foot from the moment the cars rolled of the start-line in Buenos Aires. Peugeot’s all-star cast of drivers, boasting a collective haul of 17 Dakar victories across all categories and 11 WRC world titles between them, took the bull by the horns during the first week of racing.
Dakar rookie Sébastien Loeb was somewhat of a surprise leader as the teams crossed the border into Bolivia at the half-way stage of the 2016 challenge. However, the 9-time WRC world champion was unable to consolidate his narrow advantage deep into the second week. In the first key turning point of the rally, the Frenchman flipped his Peugeot 2008 DKR on a rocky riverbed just south of the day 9 stop-off point in Salta, shedding over an hour as he and co-driver Daniel Elena set about repairing the battered car.
As Loeb plummeted down the order, it was the consistent Peterhansel who inherited top spot. Running just minutes behind his compatriot when the accident occurred, the former Mini and Mitsubishi pilot was now in pole position for the win but unable to relax with the dual menace of teammate Carlos Sainz and 2015 victor Nasser Al-Attiyah breathing down his neck.
As the drivers took to the shortened stage around Belén on Tuesday, it was in fact Sainz who eked ahead, taking advantage of a Peterhansel puncture to lead the field by 7mins. However, the Spaniard’s jubilation was short lived, as things began to unravel for the 2010 winner on the very next test.
Thunderstorms delayed proceedings on Wednesday but once the action did get underway, Sainz would’ve been forgiven for wishing he had stayed in bed. The two-time WRC world champion lost his bearings before puncturing to shed five minutes, all before crossing the first time control.
There was by now little to choose between the lead Peugeot’s but that was about to change when Sainz’s 2008 DKR ground to a halt approaching La Rioja; a broken gearbox dealing a hammer-blow to the Spaniard’s quest for a second Dakar victory. After being recovered by Peugeot’s service truck, the true extent of the damage was assessed and it quickly became clear that Sainz’s rally was over.
In a second twist, Peterhansel’s only remaining serious contender for the overall victory, Mini’s defending champion Al-Attiyah, also hit trouble on the run into La Rioja. The Qatari set out to throw caution to the wind in the pursuit of the Peugeots but hit an embankment and rolled his Mini X-raid 10km into Wednesday’s stage. The combined time lost in righting the car, plus regular stops thereafter to check the state of the X-raid’s damaged roof and cooling system, amounted to 52 minutes. Despite actually climbing a place to second after Sainz’s demise, the defending champion’s focus now shifted to consolidation rather than aggression, leaving Peterhansel in total control of the rally.
Peterhansel’s cautious approach to the concluding set of stages saw him fail to post any further fastest times, however by that point his 12th Dakar victory was all but in the bag. The wily Frenchman, already the most successful competitor in Dakar history, eased his 2008 across the final time control in Rosario in an overall time of 45h22m, over half an hour clear of second-place Al-Attiyah.
Toyota’s little-fancied South Africn duo of Giniel de Villiers and Leeroy Poulter took third and fifth respectively, sandwiching Mini’s Mikko Hirvonen who posted an excellent fourth overall on his maiden Dakar rally. Hirvonen’s former WRC nemesis Loeb had to make do with ninth after a torrid second week. However, his blinding pace over the first seven days will surely wet the Frenchman’s appetite for another crack at the ultimate prize in rallying when Dakar 2017 comes calling.