SALTA, Argentina – Lucio Alvarez and Ronnie Graue continued to climb the order as the second half of the Dakar Rally opened yesterday with one of the most demanding speed tests of the event.
The Team Ford Racing duo finished 18th in the gruelling 533km special stage which looped around the northern Argentine city of Salta, and their Ford Ranger climbed to 40th in the standings of this 9300km marathon. Yesterday’s seventh stage was won by Carlos Sainz and Timo Göttschalk (SMG Buggy).
The team’s mechanics and engineers overhauled the Argentine’s Ranger during Saturday’s rest day. Key parts including the gearbox, clutch, driveshafts and the front and rear differentials were replaced ahead of the final seven days of competition.
The work was completed in torrential rain but the weather eased to erase fears the final Argentine stage may have to be shortened for safety reasons. But temperatures were much lower, the thermometer showing 9°C at the start compared with a high of 42°C two days ago.
The test was the second longest of the rally to date and challenged both man and machine. After a rocky opening, the pace increased in the second part, which generated amazing TV images as drivers covered a flat-out blast over a 20km salt flat.
It peaked at almost 4100m, with an average of over 3500m. The high altitude meant cars struggled to ‘breathe’ in the thin air and power outputs dropped by up to 25 per cent as a result.
The second part of the stage was Alvarez’s forte and he passed several cars as he and the Ranger remained strong to the finish.
“It was a difficult stage because we raced at altitude and it was hard for the engine,” said Alvarez. “It was the same for everyone but it’s a funny feeling because the power wasn’t there. It’s easy to think there is a problem, but you know it’s the altitude and everyone else is thinking the same.
“The second part of the stage was at a lower altitude so speeds were higher. There were a lot of straight sections, the longest of which was about 25km. That wasn’t so interesting and it’s hard to keep concentration when it’s like that. The salt lasted about 45 minutes and it was strange to drive on that surface. There were a few corners but nothing challenging.
“Tomorrow we cross into Chile and the big desert stages are coming up. I’m looking forward to the sand. I want to go there and try to make good times and climb further up the order. It should be the strongest part of the rally for me.”
Scott Abraham (Team Manager – South Racing) said: “The high altitude stage was tough, but it’s part of coming to South America. The normally aspirated engines are at a disadvantage compared to the turbodiesel cars that suffer less this high up. But it was still a good stage.
“The Ranger is still going strong, Lucio and Ronnie are happy and comfortable in the car and we’re starting to build momentum.
“Tomorrow we go over the Andres and begin tackling Lucio’s favourite environment in the dunes. Over the next days we have the chance to make up lots of time if we have clean stages. Tomorrow’s stage isn’t so representative, but when we reach the coastal stages I think we could surprise a few people.”
Today, crews tackle one of the longest days of the event as they bid farewell to Argentina and cross the Andes Mountains into Chile. After a daunting 05.15 start, they face a 522km liaison section before the day’s stage. The 302km test on dirt and stony roads is the final stage in which cars will have the luxury of not encountering quads and motorcycles. Overtaking opportunities will be limited on the fast but enclosed tracks and drivers will be happy to see the finish at the entry to the Calama bivouac.