The Rub’ al Khali desert, defined as an inhospitable place far from everything, a corner where anything could happen, did not make a difference in the 2023 Dakar. On motorcycles, the Argentine Luciano Benavides (Husqavarna) won his third special of the race and saw how his brother, Kevin, lost the lead to Skyler Howes, his partner in the Swedish brand. In cars, Sébastien Loeb won for the fourth consecutive day and has accumulated five wins in this edition. The eleventh timed race, the first round of the marathon stage, was neither as hard nor as remote as the organization had warned.
“It wasn’t that bad,” resigned Fabien Lurquin, co-driver of the winning car. The BRX referents were somewhat annoyed by the course, much faster than expected with extensive areas of dry lake between the dune ridges. They wanted more difficulty and were somewhat disappointed. They even had time to repair a flat tire to win by 2m26s over Guerlain Chicherit. Nasser Al-Attiyah, fifth at 6m42s, repeated his conservative strategy and simply wanted to maintain the advantage of himself and the mechanics of his Toyota: “We are not going to go crazy now.” He leads the general classification with a margin of 1h21m04s over his teammate Luca Moraes and 1h30m41s over Loeb.
The empty quadrant, as the locals refer to this enclave, was not as empty as they said. In Ardah, a small town near the borders with Oman and the United Arab Emirates, several oil fields have stained the landscape. Not far away, the highway that crosses from north to south was loaded with construction trucks, and the fact is that the new wells are eroding the desert of the region and originating small colonies where the workers reside. A little further in, in the sea of dunes, beautiful orange and reddish undulations, the only thing that moved was the classification of the motorcycles.
Howes regains control, but enjoys just a 28 second lead over Toby Price (KTM), who was hidden throughout the stage due to a problem with his GPS beacon. Kevin Benavides missed the finish line with 6m22s and falls to third place overall (+2m44s). The front group, still compact, is closed by Mason Klein, half an hour behind his compatriot in ninth position. In the participants’ jaima, where they will share the afternoon and keep each other company, the pilots did not arrive so devastated and they did not show much concern for the health of their mounts.
“They were very soft dunes, very dry. The truth is that I expected much worse”, explained Lorenzo Santolino, the best Spaniard in the general classification (11th, +59m) and eighth in the special. Despite the singularity of the landscape, the pace of the race does not allow the competitors even a moment to contemplate the surroundings: “You don’t have time to enjoy it. You are very focused on the line and the road book. In a tenth of a second you can miss a small change in altitude and you can eat a good hole.
Tosha Schareina, 15th at 1h46m in her second participation, commented on the relative ease of today’s stage. “We have had many plains between the dune areas, and we have been able to rest there. There were many valleys and mountains of sand, and the difficult thing there is that you don’t even see the riders you are 20 seconds behind”. In a special with more moderate navigation, since everyone follows the traces of the first bikes, the Valencian rider shared the most sensitive points of the day: “It depends on how the sun is, the color of the sand and the dunes, it can look like when you’re skiing and it’s cloudy, you don’t see the outlines. You have to be careful, because you don’t control whether there is relief, nor the speed”.
After the disappointment of the leaders of the rally -another story was for those behind-, some predict a surprise in the return to Shaybah this Friday. Perhaps the dangers of Rub’ al Khali lie in the second leg of the marathon. Now he has to rest and share a bonfire and family meals in the bivouac.
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