Nasser Al-Attiyah (Toyota) used all his experience of the rocky conditions to win a tough 430km second stage from Sea Camp to Al-Ula in the 45th Dakar Rally on Monday.
As many of his rivals were held up by a series of punctures, including Sebastien Loeb (Prodrive) who lost almost an hour and a half, the Qatari Al-Attiyah ploughed to a provisional 14-second win over Erik Van Loon (Overdrive).
Carlos Sainz (Audi) was third man home, 5 minutes 5 seconds back, which was enough to give the Spaniard the lead in the provisional general classification, 2min 12sec ahead of Al-Attiyah.
Mathieu Serradori (Century) is running third, 24min 55sec behind Sainz.
“It was absolutely the time to attack and drive a good stage,” said Al-Attiyah.
“It was not an easy day. There were a lot of rocks and the navigation wasn’t easy. We had one flat tyre, one puncture at the beginning, but after that we tried to be really careful in the stony places. In the sand we pushed and I’m quite happy.”
Loeb’s hopes of competing for a first ever Dakar title hang in the balance after a stage he described as a “car wreck”.
“The whole special was hell,” said a stony-faced Loeb as he stepped out of his car which was missing its bonnet, torn off during an impact.
“At the driving level, (it was) completely uninteresting, driving in rocks in slow motion, trying to cross without puncturing and, well, we had three punctures.
“We did everything to drive slowly but there was nothing we could do, it was not at all suitable for a car like ours.”
The nine-time world rally champion, who finished second last year, is now down in 31st in the overall standings 1hr 21min off the lead.
Meanwhile, American rider Mason Klein took the overall lead in the motorcycling category after winning Monday’s stage.
“Most of the day I was just following the other guys and then at the last part they were making jokes about me leading out or not leading out and letting them all do the work,” said Klein.
“So, I said, fine, I’ll take my turn and I just left them and it was good.”
His compatriot Ricky Brabec had led overnight but could post only the 15th fastest time and was 8min 19sec slower than KTM rider Klein.
In spite of picking up a penalty, Klein timed 1min 9sec faster than Germany’s Sebastien Buhler on the stage with another American Skyler Howes finishing third 1min 13sec adrift.
The 21-year-old Californian benefitted from some tactical slowing down from Australian rider Daniel Sanders who was comfortably leading the stage before opting to ease off in the last kilometres to avoid having to open the way on Tuesday.
“I was pushing a lot at the start to make up a lot of time and that was working, but then I knew we still had 200km to go, so I backed off a little bit and sat back for tomorrow and sit back in the pack,” said the GasGas rider.
“There’s no point, it’s only the second day, to push and risk a lot, for opening tomorrow where anything can happen.
“So, we’ll see how the front guys go and hopefully I’ll be in a good position at the back.”
Klein, who finished ninth as a rooky in last year’s edition, leads Toby Price of Australia, also riding a KTM, by 1min 41 sec with Spain’s Honda rider Joan Barreda third 2min 3sec off the pace.
Tuesday’s stage will take the competitors on a picturesque 447km route from Al-Ula to Ha’il.
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