IQUIQUE, Chile – Ford Racing Ranger crew Luciol Avarez and Ronnie Graue were on course for a top 10 finish in yesterday’s ninth stage of the Dakar Rally until the legendary dunes of the Atacama Desert left their hopes buried in deep sand.
The Team Ford Racing duo showed strong pace on their favoured surface in their Ford Ranger until they became stranded in sand as they searched for a navigation waypoint just 20km from the end of the 422km special stage from Calama to Iquique in Chile.
Forty minutes went by as the Argentines shovelled sand and dug dunes furiously in an effort to release the Ranger from its sticking point. The pair worked themselves to the point of exhaustion, so much so that Graue fainted just as the Ranger finally popped out.
He quickly recovered and the pair completed the test, delighting the large crowds gathered at the finish to watch the famous 3km descent down the final dune into the Iquique bivouac.
The time loss dropped the duo to 22nd, 1hr 23min behind stage winners Stéphane Peterhansel / Jean-Paul Cottret. Despite the problems, Alvarez climbed to 35th in the overall standings.
Alvarez, regarded as a master of the sand, was just outside the top 10 through all the mid-stage time checks, despite easing his pace after the midpoint when he was concerned that a front driveshaft had become noisy.
“The beginning of the stage went well and I was happy with our pace knowing the sand was still to come,” he said. “After 230km, before we reached the dunes, I heard a noise from the front of the car, which I thought might be the driveshaft.
“We eased our pace a little because if we had broken a driveshaft there would have been no chance to cross the dunes in only two-wheel drive.
“We went OK through the sand until we missed a waypoint. We drove around to find it but when we tried to return to our road we became stuck and stayed there for 40 minutes. It took a lot of work, very hard work, to dig the Ranger out. We were only about 20km from the finish and it was a disappointing way to end the stage.”
Team-mate Graue added: “It was a long and difficult day. The sand was almost a metre deep at the rear of the car. We had to dig it out which was hard in the heat. I pushed the car until it finally escaped the sand and then fainted.
“I had to sit down, although maybe I fell down! Lucio came over to me quickly and poured water over me which helped me to recover. I said ‘OK, OK, let’s go’ and we jumped back into the car and continued.”
Today’s stage is divided into two sections boasting different characteristics. After a short liaison section from Iquique, the opening section crosses the dunes for about 80km before descending towards the Pacific Ocean coast. After a 185km liaison section, the second 215km section demands the utmost skills as it ploughs through Dakar’s famous fesh-fesh – deep, fine dust. It will be a relief for the drivers to twist and wind along mine tracks towards the finish at the majestic arch of La Portada, a handful of kilometres from the bivouac in Antofagasta.