AUTO - DAKAR 2016 - PART 1

What a difference a year makes! This time last year, the brand new Peugeot team arrived at the rest day halfway through the Dakar in eighth and 41st positions. The third PEUGEOT 2008DKR, driven by Carlos Sainz, had retired on leg five after hitting a rock.

Now, just 12 months later, Peugeot occupies the provisional top three places on the Dakar at the rest day in Salta, Argentina, thanks to Sebastien Loeb/Daniel Elena, Stephane Peterhansel/Jean-Paul Cottret and Carlos Sainz/Lucas Cruz – with the gap to fourth at more than 15 minutes. All four examples of the Peugeot 2008 DKR have completed the first 5,330 kilometres, with Cyril Despres in 14th position. Even more remarkably, a Peugeot has won every single proper stage of the event, with the exception of the prologue, and racked up two one-two-three and four one-two finishes on the six competitive stages held so far. Three of those stages have been won by nine-time World Rally Champion Sebastien Loeb: the most astonishing Dakar debut since Ari Vatanen in 1987: another former World Rally Champion driving for Peugeot.

It’s a remarkable testament to the work carried out by Peugeot’s engineers throughout last year to evolve the PEUGEOT 2008DKR from its rushed beginnings to a car that is able to compete at the very sharp end. It’s a process that has been carried out with humility, diligence and a desire to repeat some of the glories from the past.

Peugeot is one of the most successful manufacturers on the Dakar Rally, having clinched four successes (in 1987, 1988, 1989 and 1990) since the event was inaugurated in 1979. But there is still a very long way to go – nearly 5,000 kilometres, in fact – and the brand new car is not immune from technical problems, as Despres and Sainz have already experienced.

Despres lost more than an hour with a turbo problem on stage five, while Sainz lost 14 minutes after his car’s engine stalled and would not re-start on stage two. Sebastien Loeb has also not escaped drama: on stage six his car was affected by a stuck throttle.

Despite this though, a Peugeot has been in the lead from the first proper stage of the event, with Loeb then Peterhansel then Loeb again taking turns at the top. And had it not been for the electrical problem, it would have been Sainz comfortably on top by this point. As it is, the leading trio is separated by less than five minutes.

The 2016-specification Peugeot 2008DKR is lower, wider, more powerful and easier to drive than its predecessor, with better weight distribution: all factors that have contributed to its extraordinary performance on the Dakar so far.

As Stephane Peterhansel, the most successful driver in Dakar history with 11 wins behind him, put it: “It’s one of the most remarkable transformations I have ever seen. You can’t compare this car with last year’s car. In every respect it is better. I knew before we started this rally that it was more competitive than last year’s car, but it’s a pleasant surprise just how competitive it is.”

Before coming to this year’s Dakar, Sebastien Loeb had little to compare it with, having carried out only some tests in Morocco as well as one event there with last year’s car. But when it came to Dakar, Loeb was instantly on the pace despite his inexperience. “It’s true that I’ve been helped by many of the stages being quite similar in character to what I have been used to on the WRC,” he said. “But I certainly wasn’t expecting to be leading the rally. Most of all though, I’m here to learn and I’m fortunate to be surrounded by some very experienced people. Next week, the nature of the rally stages will be quite different and for sure that will be more tricky for me.”

One of those people with plenty of experience is Carlos Sainz, who proved that at 53 years old he has lost none of his speed, with a series of blisteringly fast stage and sector times over the first half of the rally. “It’s been good so far, but there is no point in drawing any conclusions until you are at the end of the rally,” said the Spaniard, who won the Dakar in 2010. “It’s clear that the speed is there but one of the most important aspects of the Dakar is reliability, and we have still had some issues on the cars. There is more work to do in this area. And the second week of the Dakar will be very tough, so we are yet to see the hardest part.”

Like Loeb, Cyril Despres is still climbing a learning curve on the Dakar in cars, having previously won the motorbike category five times. His progress is clear to see, until his turbo problem on stage five, the Frenchman and his codriver David Castera had been able to finish in the top five ona previous stage. “To have the problem was disappointing, but it’s the sort of thing that can happen in a car that’s brand new,” said Despres. “I’ve been very pleased with our pace, and particularly with our improvement compared to last year. I knew that my conversion from bikes to cars was going to be a long-term process, but I really feel it start to come together now.”

All of the crews can rightfully be proud of what they have achieved so far. But they are equally aware that the biggest test is still to come, as team principal Bruno Famin points out: “We can take away a very positive conclusion from this first week,” he said. “First and foremost, all four of our cars are still in the race. Three of them are in the top three, having claimed stage wins on every leg apart from the prologue. We’ve also had some one-twos, and even some one-two-threes. Our first objective in showing the competitiveness of the PEUGEOT 2008 DKR has been achieved. Now we move on to the next objective: getting to the end with as many cars as possible. In order to do that, we’re going to have to overcome some problems that could potentially set us back a lot, as we’ve seen on the car of Cyril Despres, which lost an hour and a quarter. Furthermore, the second half of the rally has quite a different look to it. The gaps become considerably bigger, given the risk of getting stuck in sand or making a navigational mistake. The advantage we have built up to now is an extremely fragile one. So we’re going to stick to our plan, and just take every stage as it comes.”

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