12TH DAKAR WIN: Stephane Peterhansel's 12th Dakar win is subject to an FIA appeal by Mini. Image: AP / Jorge Saenz
Argentina - So, Monsieur Dakar needed fingers on two hands and two thumbs up from co-driver Jean-Paul Cottret to indicate his tally of Dakar victories after the 38th running of the world’s toughest motor race.
While Stéphane Peterhansel and Peugeot’s podium celebrations reverberated around the earth, the French rally raid master’s historical feat is yet to be officially confirmed – depending an appeal hearing by the FIA.
This appeal, initiated by the X-Raid team, follows a decision by Dakar officials not to penalise Peterhansel because the rules were open to interpretation.
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Initially it was to be heard urgently, but now it may take another two months to process, according to Dakar route director Marc Coma.
A decision by Peterhansel to refuel at a point midway through Stage 8 – with a split timed special – from Salta to Belen lead to this state of affairs.
The controversy is centred around whether Peterhansel was permitted to refuel at this point, with Peugeot team director Bruno Famin saying the refuelling point was listed in the road book, while X-raid chief Sven Quandt argues it was only for bikes and quads.
So, according to Famin, no breach of the rules took place.
Famin said: "The refueling point exists in the road book. I do not understand why this situation has happened.”
However, Quandt maintains the refuelling rules were made clear to competitors in the driver’s briefing.
“The rule is very clear and easy to decide. At the meeting it was said that there would be no refuelling. The rule says that. The point is clear hundred per cent. “The stage includes link sections and a special stage and starts this morning and ends at the finish. The charging point in the road book was for motorcycles and quads, not cars.”
After deliberation the Dakar officials decided not to penalise the Frenchman, and this lead to X-Raid’s appeal.
Why did Peterhansel do it?
It seems the mid-stage refuel was a deliberate part of Peterhansel’s strategy for this important stage – the reasoning being that with a lighter car he could gain an advantage in the difficult dune sections.
An analysis of his performance on the stage seems to confirm this.
After a difficult start it’s clear he pushed very hard just before the disputed refuelling point, moving up from 16th to 9th position by waypoint six, and after this, with just enough fuel to reach the finish, jumping to third by the next waypoint.
However, it didn’t work out exactly as planned. Having lost too much time early on Peterhansel could not use the early weight advantage of his car to the full. He lost the stage win to Mini’s Nasser Al-Attiyah by 33 seconds, and was also marginally beaten by team mate Carlos Sainz.
Yet, his performance was good enough to keep a substantial lead over Sainz – leading the Spaniard by a margin of just over 2 minutes before Stage 9.
Why not the rest?
Still, it is odd that none of Peterhansel’s Peugeot dream team mates (Sainz, Loeb and Despres) decided to go for the same refuelling option.
Were they unaware of the Frenchman’s plans (even though it seems team boss Famin was fully aware of it) or did they perhaps decide not to risk it?
If so, why? Or rather, why not?
Anyway, it is for the suits in Paris to deliberate these questions. If found guilty a penalty of up to six hours, or even exclusion, will apply, meaning Peterhansel will have to give up his 2016 title in favour of the Qatari Al-Attiyah.
But, on strength of the original decision taken by the Dakar officials, chances are that nothing much will come of the appeal.
It’s not the first time Peterhansel has been shrouded in some controversy.
In the 2012 Dakar (which he also won, incidentally) there was a general outcry when the Dakar expert clipped the stricken Italian motorcycle rider Filippo Ciotto while crossing a river.
While Peterhansel, a six times Dakar motorcycle winner, showed no regard for the safety of a fellow competitor – which earned him the chagrin of Dakar biker fans worldwide – the organisers took no action against him.
A Dakar legend
All this does not detract from the fact that Peterhansel is the Dakar race personified.
With a split of six overall wins in both the two- and four-wheel categories he is undeniably the most successful Dakar racer ever – and perhaps the 50-year old endurance master’s controversial, yet deserved victory in 2016 is fair payback for 2014 – when team orders forced him to forego victory and give way to Mini team mate Nani Roma…