The final stage before the halfway rest day on the Dakar Rally saw the longest single stage of the rally, at 600km. Competitors took on sand dunes, salt flats, and a 100km stretch of normal, boring highway as racing was neutralised to go round a natural reserve.
But despite the length of the stage it was arguably the quietest day of the rally. Perhaps drivers and riders simply aimed to make it to the Pacific coast city of Antofagasta for a day off; or they took into account the plight of Luca Manca, now at a hospital in Santiago after yesterday’s horrific accident ended his rally.
The bikes saw overall leader Cyril Despres extend his lead with another stage win, his second of the event. The long stage saw the provisional lead change hands; Norwegian Pal Anders Ullevalseter leading until the 141km mark, David Fretigne emerging ahead after the neutralisation at 277km before Fransisco Lopez Contardo took the lead.
In the final third of the stage it was, again, a battle between Marc Coma and Despres, the Spaniard leading by only 10 seconds at the last timing point before the end of the stage. However, by the end of the stage it was Despres who was fastest, though only by a margin of 29 seconds.
Fretigne was a distant third, five minutes behind, ahead of Ruben Faria and Ullevalseter.
But the day was not without its talking points. At the time of writing (8 p.m. Chilean time) Marc Coma was in a meeting with officials. It is alleged that Coma received a new wheel from an outsider on the stage; if proved, that could see a penalty assessed or even exclusion from the event, where a racer's ability to repair his vehicle on stage is as important as his ability to drive fast.
For the car class it was another familiar story as the VW and BMW squads went toe to toe once again.
Stephane Peterhansel (BMW) swapped the provisional fastest time all day with VW’s Nasser Al-Attiyah (save for one timing point when Robby Gordon almost inexplicably jumped out to a three minute lead).
For the final third of the stage Al-Attiyah pulled out a lead, 44 seconds at 448km all the way to 3:29 ahead of the Frenchman by the end of the stage. VW teammates Carlos Sainz and Mark Miller were ahead of a second BMW, this time piloted by Guerlain Chicherit rounding up the top five.
It was also a day when the privateer challenge faded just a little more. JMB Stradale Mitsubishi driver Carlos Souza lost an hour and 39 minutes having to improvise his braking system after an early failure with a repair that appeared to involve a pair of pliers taped to the car’s front suspension!
Faring even worse was Robby Gordon and his Hummer, who lost over two hours after an alternator failure forced the NASCAR driver to stop after 480km and wait for teammate RJ Baldwin who was carrying a spare. Krzysztof Holowczyc’s Nissan now stands as the best privateer, sixth overall, 13 minutes down on fifth placed Peterhansel.
Alejandro Patronelli won the stage in the quad class from his brother, Marcos, who now leads the class overall by two hours. That massive margin is partly down to the apparent retirement of Jorge Miguel Santamarina who had been his closest challenger (though even he was 1h26 behind at the beginning of the day).
Santamarina’s demise, and a 52 minute delay for Spaniard Juan Manuel Gonzalez, sees the Argentinean brothers now one-two in the standings.
Predictably, it was another day of Kamaz schooling the remainder of the field in the truck class, though with a twist. Up front it was Vladimir "The Tsar" Chagin winning another stage, his 53rd career victory, equaling Peterhansel for the outright record.
Second again was Firdaus Kabirov, but missing was the third Kamaz of Ilgizar Mardeev, the Russian, having stopped after 257km with mechanical problems and still yet to complete the stage nearly twelve hours after starting out from Iquique this morning.
Stage Seven Results
1. Cyril Despres (KTM) 6h34:14
2. Marc Coma (KTM) +0h00:29
3. David Fretigne (Yamaha) +0h05:00
4. Ruben Faria (KTM) +0h09:10
5. Pal Anders Ullevalseter (KTM) +0h11:10
1. Nasser Al-Attiyah (VW) 5h41:29
2. Stephane Peterhansel (BMW) +0h03:29
3. Carlos Sainz (VW) +0h04:21
4. Mark Miller (VW) +0h08:40
5. Guerlain Chicherit (BMW) +0h15:33
1. Alejandro Patronelli (Yamaha) 8h10:22
2. Marcos Patronelli (Yamaha) +0h03:30
3. Rafal Sonik (Yamaha) +0h30:13
4. Christophe Declerck (Polaris) +0h30:35
5. Sebastian Halpern (Yamaha) +0h31:16
1. Vladimir Chagin (Kamaz) 6h50:20
2. Firdaus Kabirov (Kamaz) +0h25:35
3. Martin Macik (Liaz) +1h39:22
4. Marcel Van Vliet (Ginaf) +1h40:20
5. Wulfert Van Ginkel (Ginaf) +1h44:29
Overall Standings After Stage Seven
1. Cyril Despres (KTM) 28h10:13
2. Marc Coma (KTM) +1h06:50
3. Helder Rodrigues (Yamaha) +1h20:08
4. Pal Anders Ullevalseter (KTM) +1h25:52
5. Francisco Lopez Contardo (Aprilia) +1h31:04
1. Carlos Sainz (VW) 26h21:23
2. Nasser Al-Attiyah (VW) +0h11:03
3. Mark Miller (VW) +0h22:06
4. Guerlain Chicherit (BMW) +2h02:54
5. Stephane Peterhansel (BMW) +2h03:10
1. Marcos Patronelli (Yamaha) 35h00:34
2. Alejandro Patronelli (Yamaha) +2h22:25
3. Juan Manuel Gonzalez (Yamaha) +3h17:26
4. Sebastian Halpern (Yamaha) +4h59:53
5. Rafal Sonik (Yamaha) +5h36:46
1. Vladimir Chagin (Kamaz) 30h06:14
2. Firdaus Kabirov (Kamaz) +1h03:46
3. Marcel Van Vliet (Ginaf) +5h47:00
4. Martin Macik (Liaz) +7h04:19
5. Johan Elfrink (Mercedes) +8h04:14