The first half of the event through Paraguay, northern Argentina and southern Bolivia had been one of the most unpredictable on record and had accounted for Toyota’s early race leader Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah and Frenchman Ronan Chabot.
But Overdrive Racing’s Joan Roma was well placed in fourth overall to challenge for the outright victory over the remaining six stages before the finish festivities in the Argentine capital. With 22 Dakars behind him, Roma has the experience necessary to assess the current situation and plan his strategy to challenge for the win. The 2014 winner is receiving valuable support from Monster Energy, Power Electronics and Air Europa for his Dakar challenge.
Toyota Gazoo Racing’s Giniel de Villiers had endured a fraught few days by his exacting standards and the South African reached the rest halt in La Paz in eighth position and needing to pull out all the stops over the remaining specials if he is to continue his remarkable run of podium finishes.
Former WRC star Conrad Rautenbach has been particularly impressive on his Dakar debut in a South African-built Toyota Hilux with co-driver Robert Howie. Despite intense heat and choking dust in Argentina and torrential rain, mud and appalling stage conditions at altitude in Bolivia, the Zimbabwean has carded a sixth quickest time and reached La Paz in 15th position.
The Dutch crew of Erik van Loon and Wouter Rosegaar lost time during the middle of the first week after holding a top 10 place at the start of the rally. They continue to climb back up the leader board in their Overdrive Racing Toyota Hilux and will start the second half of the rally from 19th overall.
Overdrive Racing’s Yacopini and Merlo close in on top 20 at halfway point
Alejandro Yacopini and Daniel Merlo have been on a cautious and consistent pace from the start in their Overdrive Toyota. The Argentineans have stayed out of major trouble , as many of their rivals have fallen by the wayside and are well-placed in 21st overall to challenge hard for a place well inside the top 20 when the rally returns to their native Argentina on Tuesday.
He Zhitao and Kai Zhao have missed several waypoints on the route into Bolivia thanks to GPS issues and incurred time penalties as a result. But the Chinese crew have enjoyed their experience nonetheless and, suitably refreshed by a day’s rest in La Paz, are eager to push on through the second half of the event next week. They hold 50th overall.
The Toyota team’s biggest disappointment came with the retirement of Qatar’s Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah and Matthieu Baumel in the leading Toyota Gazoo Racing Toyota after the third stage in Argentina. The two-time Dakar winner had dominated the 2016 FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies with Overdrive Racing and taken that form into the Dakar.
The Qatari won the opening stage in Paraguay to snatch the outright lead and then ceded that advantage to Frenchman Sébastien Loeb on day two, only to regain the virtual outright lead on the next stage before smashing hard into a large hole and badly damaging his Toyota beyond repair.
The French duo of Ronan Chabot and Gilles Pillot had been just outside the top 10 in their Overdrive Racing Toyota until they stopped with engine issues just short of the crossing from Argentina into Bolivia. They were forced to join Al-Attiyah on the ever-growing list of retirements.
Additional support for Overdrive Racing comes from Power Electronics and Kappa clothing.
The resumption of action on Monday (tomorrow) takes teams to the town of Uyuni on the first half of a Marathon stage and a competitive section of 322km in a route of 622km. Parts of the route have been used on the Dakar since 2014 and feature long sections of sandy tracks at altitude and many or the perils associated with stages in Bolivia.
WHAT THEY SAID:
JEAN-MARC FORTIN, CEO of Overdrive Racing
“Well, the first week is over and we can look back on the highs and lows of that week. We had the painful days when we lost Nasser (Al-Attiyah) and Ronan (Chabot). That hurt, but we need to carry on. We are still very much in the game with Nani (Roma). He is doing a very good race and Alex (Haro) is doing a great job with the navigation. Our hopes rest with this crew. Giniel (De Villiers) lost 26 minutes with navigation issues on stage five. We need to get him back ahead of, al least, (Orlando) Terranova and (Jakub) Przygonski and then into a fight with (Mikko) Hirvonen. With that we can hope for a top five. “Erik (Van Loon) is back in contention. He also had a navigation problem on stage five. His speed is there. He has shown that he can be in the top 10 every day without problems. We hope to bring him home in the top 10. (Alejandro) Yacopini is doing a very good race. This is his first time in T1 category. He was in T2 all the time before. Day-by-day nothing major and he carries on. I am very pleased to have him in the team. He Zhitao had a very hard stage four. He also had a few problems with the GPS and was missing waypoints. We are checking with the race stewards because some of his penalties are not right. There are too many. He is still in the race and we need to bring him to the finish.
We had a hard first week, with very high temperatures at the start – over 40 (°C). Now the rain is there for two days and it has been tough working in the mud and the cold. But we can expect the high temperatures again on the way to the finish in Argentina. Nobody has suffered from the altitude. We were well prepared with medicine and I am pleased that the whole team was fit and able to cope with the conditions and the heights of over 4,000 metres.”
“It has been an interesting week and a very long and hard week where we have tried not to make too many mistakes. For now we are doing very well. We are really happy with how the first week has gone. It’s been a tough edition and we have seen some of the favourites had to return home already. We still have many complicated days to come. In the third stage we ran out of fuel and lost about eight minutes. Without that we would be leading the Dakar. It was a human error. We have been consistent every day and have not made mistakes. The Dakar is a race marathon where many things can happen. The important thing is to arrive every day and with the minimum of problems. We all have our problems, but it’s important to have as few as possible. We will keep the pressure on the Peugeots from the next stage and all next week. At altitude, their cars are very fast and go well, as we have seen in Bolivia. But we are now going to Argentina, where the altitude will be lower and we will be more competitive.”