Team Red Bull KTM elected to change the engines on both Despres' and Coma's bikes after Stage 8. This is permissable under Dakar rules, but does incur a 15 minute time penalty. With a view to reliability and ensuring they make the finish, a number of other riders also elected to fit a fresh engine ahead of Stage 9. Given so many riders chose to make the chhnage (and incur the penalty), the overall standings weren't seriously affected. Despres finished the stage 3'54" in front of Coma, which means the Frenchman moves back to the top of the general standings by 2'28".
Stage 9, between Antofagasta and Iquique, was "won" by Portugal's Helder Rodrigues (Yamaha WRF 450), even though he was third across the line behind Despres and Coma. With the time penalty applied, Rodrigues finished 3 minutes ahead of Despres, followed by Stefan Svitko (KTM 450RR), Jordi Viladoms (KTM Rally Replica) and Frans Verhoeven (Sherco SR 450) proving the reliability of the Sherco.
The day's 556km Special Stage was split into two sections, separated by a transit section across the 'Salar de Llamara' salt flats. Rocky trails and the fine 'fesh fesh' sand marked the first section of the Special Stage, with the second section characterised by huge dunes on the descent into Iquique on the Pacific coast. Weather continues to play a part in this year's Dakar, with the Special stretched to 606km to divert around the same sort of conditions that caught out riders on Stage 8.
From the start, Despres set a frightening pace, leading at all the day's check points. Hindered by having to open the road, Marc Coma finished 2nd after attacking as hard as Despres on both of the day's timed sections. The duel is far from over, though, especially since both riders changed their engines and are therefore equal in strategic terms.
"We knew that this would be a difficult race," Coma said after the conclusion of Stage 9. "It was long and there was plenty of navigation to deal with. We're coming to the crunch part of the rally. Cyril is a major rival and we do battle over every single kilometre. But I think it's interesting, it's sport. Yesterday, the KTM technicians decided it was time to change our engines because we'd reached the half-way point. It's a very good idea."
Juan Barreda Bort achieved the 3rd best time of the day, 8'28" behind Despres, but a 15 minute time penalty dropped the Spanish youngster to ninth for the stage. Paulo Goncalves was another to wear the 15 minute slap for an engine change, but along with his Portuguese countryman, Rodrigues, looks to be one of the "best of the rest" behind Despres and Coma. Still in with a shot for the final podium, the two Portuguese riders are now separated by 26'38" in favour of Rodrigues. The biggest loser on Stage 9 was David Casteu (Yamaha WRF 450 Rally), who blew up the engine on his Yamaha at the 550-km point of the Special Stage. Coming into Stage 9, Casteu was fourth overall and threatening for the final podium position, but now the Frenchman's 2012 Dakar is over.
Australia's three bike competitors are still in the Dakar, with David Schwarz (Husaberg FE 450) the best performer on Stage 9 in 44th overall. A touch of comedy was added to proceedings when a local policeman directed Schwarz, and several other riders, in the wrong direction at one point. Despite this, the result moves Schwarz closer to Dean Nuttall (KTM 450 Replica) in the overall standings. At the conclusion of Stage 9, Nuttall is 40th overall, Schwarz 44th and Dakar rookie Jamie Chittick (Honda CRF 450X) 66th.
In the quad race, the Yamaha-mounted Patronelli brothers continue to lead the way. In Iquique, for the 4th day running, the brothers were victorious. Finishing 44 minutes after the siblings, who rode together throughout the day, Tomas Maffei (Yamaha 650 GRW) lost his 2nd place in the general standings. As a result, whilst Maffei trails Alejandro Patronelli by 1 hour and 50 minutes, Casale (Yamaha Raptor 700) and Lafuente (Yamaha Raptor 700), respectively 4th and 5th, are 4 hours 7 minutes and 6 hours seventeen minutes behind the leader. Whatever the result amongst the riders, Yamaha will be the winners, as all the front runners are running the blue machines!
Stage 10 from Iquique to Arica will be the final in Chile, and will be characterised by sand - lots of it!
For full results and further details, go to www.dakar.com