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Dakar 2007: Peterhansel and Alphand climb to 3rd an 4th overall.

Twice former Dakar Rally winners Stéphane Peterhansel and Jean-Paul Cottret and defending champions Luc Alphand and Gilles Picard moved up to third and fourth overall in the 29th Dakar Rally, after the shortened seventh special stage that wound its way between Zouérat and Atar in Mauritania on Friday.

Today’s stage was shortened for safety reasons by event organizers. A fierce sandstorm was blowing at the second passage control at the 439km point and helicopters were unable to fly in such conditions. Therefore, ASO officials cancelled the last 134km of the special stage and the timed section finished at the 407.6km point, thereby reducing the competitive distance by just under 135km.

Peterhansel and Cottret began the day fifth on the road and quickly joined the leading pack. At the 188km point they were running alongside Carlos Sainz, Giniel De Villiers and Robbie Gordon, although Jean-Louis Schlesser had been forced to stop for several minutes with technical problems. Peterhansel was fastest at the first 216km passage control and eventually finished the stage in second position, after a puncture and delays in soft sand. He duly moved up to third in the overall rankings and unofficially trails new overall leader Giniel De Villiers by 24m 38s and second-placed Carlos Sainz by 22m 59s.

"This morning I thought that the stage would be harder," said Peterhansel. "Normally this kind of stage has soft sand and dunes, but today we only had a few dunes. It was soft but not too long. We tried to follow the line of the motorbikes. It is important to keep the concentration and follow the correct line. Near the end I got stuck in the sand at the very last dune. We tried to pass with high tire pressure, but it was not easy.

"We lost about 10 minutes and then, just before the end of the stage, we had a puncture and had to stop and change the wheel and inflate the tires. This morning we were fifth and now we are third, but the difference between us and the leaders is still much the same, so we have it all to do next week."

Luc Alphand and Gilles Picard began the stage in eighth position and were fourth through the first passage control. They eventually finished the stage in sixth place and climbed to fourth in the general classification, their cause helped when Portugal’s Carlos Sousa lost time in the sand dunes.

"Again it was a frustrating day for us," said Alphand. "Nothing really that clean and we got stuck twice. We were on the same pace as the others when we got stuck the first time. That was not a problem, because we deflated the tires, but then we got stuck again. It was really soft and was purely a case of taking a wrong decision. It’s so frustrating when you have to stop, get out of the car, get the sand plates out and free the car. It all costs valuable time - seven minutes wasted - and then we had to stop again to inflate the tires. But, we are here and will continue to do our best next week."

Hiroshi Masuoka and Pascal Maimon had set the 23rd fastest time into Zouérat, after stopping to change the clutch and were 21st into the stage this morning. But they were running as the sixth fastest car through PC1 and eventually completed the shortened stage in an excellent fourth overall to give them a good starting position when the event resumes to Tichit on Monday.

"We started this morning as the 23rd car," said Masuoka. "It was very difficult to drive in a series of sand storms. In some places the visibility was down to 30 metres. It was a wall of sand. I did not see too many cars. Pascal did a great job on the navigation. I was about to enter the sand dunes and I realised it would have been impossible to get through, so we turned around and deflated the tires. It was a good decision, because we had a clean run through the dunes."

Joan ‘Nani’ Roma and Lucas Cruz were 14th into the second Mauritanian stage and held eighth at PC1. But the Spaniard rolled his Mitsubishi Pajero/Montero Evolution in sand dunes at the 295km point, 112km from the stage finish. Neither team member was injured in the incident, but the roll cost Roma his place on the top 10 leaderboard.

"Obviously safety is paramount on this rally and we must respect the decision of the organizers to shorten the stage," said MMSP’s Managing and Sporting Director Dominique Serieys. "Stephane and Hiroshi drove a very good stage today and that puts Hiroshi in a good position to start the next stage on Sunday. Luc is also in contention and we now have third and fourth places. At the beginning of the rally, we had a team chat and the target was top five and around 20 minutes behind the leaders at this stage.

"We will push ever harder now and apply more pressure on the leaders. It appears that ‘Nani’ had a slow roll in the sand dunes. Neither of the crew were injured and the car is back on its wheels, but there appears to be a problem starting the engine and they are waiting for the assistance truck. We will rebuild the cars in Atar, as per our service schedule, but we must also try and find out why we had clutch problems. This has not happened before on these cars."

Tomorrow (Saturday) is the traditional rest day on the Dakar Rally. Several hundred VIPs arrived at the remote tarmac airstrip in Atar to witness the action, although poor weather had closed in on Friday and strong winds were shifting dust and sand around the airport area for much of the day.

The rest day was also an opportunity for Team Repsol Mitsubishi Ralliart to send fresh mechanics and team representatives to the event. Fourteen staff, including Osama Nakayama, General Manager of Mitsubishi Motors Motor Sports Team, and nine mechanics visited the bivouac for two days.

2007/01/12 | 16:40 CET | Editor: MR/MMSP/Neil Perkins

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