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Dakar’s rough and tough stage nine sees Sainz stay on top

A savvy drive from Audi’s rally legend maintains El Matador’s overall lead

It’s crunch time on the 2024 Dakar Rally. As the finish line on Saudi Arabia’s west coast draws ever closer, despite everything being thrown at them by one of the world’s toughest motorsport events, Audi’s Spanish superstars Carlos Sainz and Lucas Cruz stand firm at top of the order. Better still, stage nine saw the duo and their Audi RS Q e-tron take another vital step towards overall victory with a runner-up finish on Tuesday’s fast, flowing stage.

The conditions were there for Sainz to lose a chunk of time to his closest competitor, nine-time World Rally Champion Sébastien Loeb. The running order had Audi’s Mattias Ekström, Stéphane Peterhansel and Sainz starting from first, second and fourth respectively on account of a remarkable 1-2-4 on stage a day earlier. With Peterhansel immediately and strategically dropping back to fulfil a support role, third-place starter Guerlain Chicherit losing time, and Ekström delayed by a pair of punctures, Sainz would ultimately serve as the navigational north star and the first car through the stage on the final 200km. From 10th on the road, able to see everyone else’s tracks, Loeb had a considerable advantage.

Then there was the terrain to consider, as the fast, sandy sweeps at the start of the 436km route from Ha’il back to the Martian landscape of AlUla (where the rally began in the first week of the New Year) was soon replaced by stoney sequences ready to punish any overzealous driving and feast on tyres. Navigational complexities were in plentiful supply on the rocky plateaus. “I can imagine there is a lot of stress inside his cockpit,” said Peterhansel as he sympathised with Sainz’s situation after the stage.

Top Gear Audi Dakar 2024 Stage 9

But Sainz’s lead - one that’s been unbroken for four stages now following his successful completion of stage nine - has been built on consistency rather than brute speed and that approach served him well again as he minimised any time-sapping damage despite those unfavourable circumstances.

Concentration was critical considering the unexpected path-clearing responsibilities on the second half of the stage. El Matador was quick to praise co-driver Cruz for successfully navigating their RS Q e-tron to the finish - and in a competitive time too. Sure enough, Loeb won the stage, but coming through second fastest and just 4m14s behind the Frenchman ensured Sainz, who took a third stage podium of 2024, remained more than 20 minutes clear overall with three stages to run. 

“Another day without problems, so I'm happy,” said Sainz, relieved to have reached the end. “The stage was one of the toughest of the rally, I would put it in the top three. We had to open [the road during] the second part so that was a good job from Lucas. I’m happy we didn't lose so much time.”

Top Gear Audi Dakar 2024 Stage 9

Not for the first time, that margin owed a little to Loeb’s misfortune - the stage winner suffered two punctures - but that’s the risk/reward conundrum of the Dakar in a nutshell. Though this appeared to be a small loss for Sainz on the timesheets, it was a big win in the bigger picture.

As Peterhansel put it: “Normally it would’ve been possible for him [Loeb] to do a big gap to Carlos, because he started 10th and Carlos was fourth, so there were a lot of positions between them. It was a good opportunity. He took some minutes, but for me it was not enough.”

Ekström’s double puncture meant he joined Peterhansel in flanking Sainz to the stage end in the event of any issues for the leading RS Q e-tron. Ultimately nothing untoward happened, but Sainz was glad for the comfort it provided on what he described as another “stressful” day. Both wingmen ended the day in the top 10 - Peterhansel sixth and Ekström eighth - as they continued their recovery climbs up the overall order to 13th and 20th respectively following separate victory-ending incidents in the past week.

Top Gear Audi Dakar 2024 Stage 9

Starting positions for tomorrow's AlUla loop stage were set to play an important part in things but that, to a large extent, has gone out of the window now – all eyes will be on the front of the field as Loeb and Sainz set off from first and second. The stage, a 371km route, snakes through some monumental rocks that represent a fiendish obstacle course. Given what's at stake, it's one that's not to be missed.
 

For more Audi performance stories, head this way

*This vehicle shown here is the Rally Dakar vehicle that is not available as a production model. Closed course, professional driver. Do not attempt. The Audi RS Q e-tron combines an electric drivetrain with an energy converter system comprising a TFSI engine and generator.

 

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