SAN JUAN, Argentina
– The 2014 Dakar Rally was designed to be the toughest edition yet in its sixth year since moving to South America, and it has turned out to be exactly that – particularly on the third stage from San Rafael to San Juan.
Lucio Alvarez and Ronnie Graue (308) had recovered well on Monday in the Team Ford Racing Ranger, making up sufficient time to claw back an astonishing 92 positions, ending 38th overall. They were hoping to continue the charge on the 301 km special stage through the Cordillera de Tontal mountains in the Andes yesterday.
The crew had settled into a decent pace through the first two-thirds of the stage, passing several cars as the route traversed undulating terrain that varied between 1 800 and over 3 100 m in altitude.
However their run came to an abrupt halt when they hit a culvert in the road around 80 km from the end of the stage while fighting their way through the dust. Damage to the front left suspension side-lined the Team Ford Racing Ranger for several hours.
Alvarez and Graue worked tirelessly to replace the damaged components in searing 40-degree heat, with race cars screaming past at full tilt and creating clouds of dust.
Proving the tenacity of the crew, they managed to get the Ranger back on the road and made it to the bivouac in San Juan just minutes before the refuelling closed for the night.
Ultimately they dropped down to 81st overall out of 105 remaining competitors in the car category, and will be repositioned to start stage four tomorrow 18th on the road.
“We had a great run up till we damaged the suspension. I was really enjoying the route through the mountains today, and Ronnie and I had a very good rhythm,” said Alvarez.
“We passed several cars, but with all the dust we didn’t see the culvert and we broke the lower suspension arm. So far it seems like luck isn’t on my side, but we’re glad that we got going again and will continue fighting.”
Team Ford Racing manager Scott Abraham said: “The damage to the Ranger was unfortunate, but we had the necessary parts in the vehicle. However in the heat and less-than-ideal conditions out on the stage it’s very difficult to conduct the repairs, and Lucio and Ronnie did very well to bring the car home.
“This is definitely not the result we were hoping for, but we live to fight another day.
“Our goal is to carry on running. The team is behind Lucio and Ronnie 100-percent, and they start stage four in good company behind Peterhansel and Sainz.”
The Ford crew weren’t the only top-flight competitors struggling in the conditions. Race leaders Stephane Peterhansel/Jean Paul Cottret (MINI) picked up six punctures on the day which cost them 26 minutes, with team-mates Nani Roma/Michel Perin claiming the stage win and overall lead. Carlos Sainz/Timo Gottschalk (SMG Buggy) also lost significant time as the conditions took their toll.
An astonishing 35 of the original 439 competitors failed to make the end of day two, while more than 20 dropped out yesterday alone.
The best news of the day came when Chris Visser arrived in San Juan tonight having been released from hospital after Monday’s accident. The South African and co-driver Japie Badenhorst rolled their Ranger heavily end-over-end and Visser was kept in hospital overnight for observation on a compression injury to his back. He was released yesterday morning.
The Dakar action is expected to get even tougher today, with the longest special stage since 2005 (North Africa’s stage from Zouerat to Tichit).
They will have to cross rivers, climb to an altitude of almost 3,500 m and descend canyons in what is described as a Wild West setting. The wide open terrain should give the faster vehicles an opportunity to make up lost positions.
The stage is split into two sections. After an early restart drivers face a short 43 km liaison section before tackling 217 km competitively. A 157 km neutralisation section is followed by the final 284 km of the special stage. Another liaison section leads the teams to Chilecito after an arduous 868 km of driving.