Late last night, after the riders had already gone to bed, TSO organizers were at work deciding what to do about 71 riders - two-time Dakar winner Richard Sainct among them - who had broken rules during the New Year's Day stage. In the interest of public safety, strict speed limits are imposed when the course passes through villages, and most of yesterday's infractions were speed penalties. A penalty of one minute is imposed for every kilometer per hour over the limit, and since Sainct, had gone 89 kph (55 mph) in a 40 kph (25 mph) zone, he could be assessed a penalty of nearly a half hour - huge in this year's relatively short version of the rally. The Gauloises KTM-sponsored Frenchman is continuing on, but his concentration was affected in today's special test.
"I think it's stupid," a somber Sainct said after Wednesday's stage. "It's stupid because no rider respects the limit. It was impossible to ride [that slowly]."
Sainct's competitors agreed that a penalty would be wrong, in particular defending champ Fabrizio Meoni. "It's like a lottery," the Italian said today. "The beginning of the speed-limit zone is written in the road book, but not the finish. Therefore you're never sure: Are you out of the village? Is the section finished? How can you ever by sure if the village is finished, or if maybe it's beyond the next curve? Anyway, in my opinion, you need a speed limit in the villages and areas where there are people. Those areas yesterday were a little isolated - first. And second, they need to have a graduated system, so that the first time a rule is broken, a monetary fine is imposed. That way someone gets a fine, and afterward is extremely careful. They should remove the fine, but they have to be careful because then the next time there's a fine they'll have to remove that one."
KTM chose not to protest the penalty, and the jury held a meeting today. As this is written, no decision has yet been made.
Also possibly affected was Italian Giovanni Sala, who is entered on one of the two new KTM LC8 twin-cylinder bikes, and who would receive a penalty of 19 minutes if the decision sticks. There was some speculation that officials confused Meoni's number-1 KTM twin for Sala's number-7 KTM twin, and that the rider to break the limit was actually Meoni. Sala is in the race primarily as a support rider for Meoni, so KTM if this is a miscall, KTM won't mind one bit.
In addition to time penalties, competitors would also be assessed monetary fines of 1000 euros, or approximately $80. The penalties are controversial, to be sure, but the organization feels they are necessary to insure a safe rally. Since privateers (focused mainly on finishing) don't care about the time penalties, and since factory riders (focused mainly on winning) don't care about monetary fines, both are used.
The 357-mile Wednesday stage started at 6:30 this morning in Er Rachidia, Morocco, and went 35 miles south on pavement before beginning a fast, 210-mile special test (the rally's first long one) that carried racers south and then west between the villages of Erfoud and Tazzrine. The test included sections with gravel, rocks, sand, some vegetation, and even a few jumps. After that, it was 113 more miles of pavement transfer to Ouarzazate. The stage served as somewhat of a transition, carrying riders to the sandy areas of southern Morocco. In fact, the competitors got their first glimpses of sand dunes today, and actually crossed over the Chebbi Erg - a range of dunes that includes the country's tallest - before dropping into deep valleys and traversing mountain-ringed plateaus. The first riders reached the stage's end at approximately 1:30 p.m.
Earning the fastest time in this important stage was Repsol/Telefonica Movistar KTM rider Joan Roma, who rebounded from yesterday's off performance and completed the test nearly a minute and a half quicker than his nearest competitor - Deutsche Post KTM's Kari Tiainen.
"I started behind, and there was a lot of dust from Tiainen, Meoni and the others," Roma said. "After the town of Hi-Remelia, they got lost and I managed to get past. It was very fast, but I was behind de Gavardo and started to attack to try and gain some time."
Next was Roma's teammate Jordi Arcarons, the runner-up in last year's rally jumping into the overall lead position thanks to the result. Gauloises KTM's Alfie Cox was next in the test, and Meoni was fifth.
"A good stage," said Arcarons. "I have ridden in this area many times and have organized tours in the area. A group was ahead; I attacked very hard and Isidre [Esteve], my teammate, let me past, and I thank him for that. I lost some time in the dunes because I took a left and it was not the right one. There was a wadi [dry stream] in Hi-Remelia, and then I found the right track. It was not easy, but I regained the time I lost and passed Sainct."
Roma now follows Arcarons by 48 seconds in the overall results, with Tiainen rounding out the top three - two and a half minutes off the pace. Meoni and Cox are next, with Chilean Carlo de Gavardo slipping from third to sixth.
Today was the birthday of Andrea Mayer, a Deutsche Post KTM-sponsored German who is one of the rally's female racers. Mayer finished 21st today, and is currently 21st overall.
Now that the long tests are beginning, so is the destruction. The Gauloises-sponsored Kangoo-Renault diesel of Jean-Louis Schlesser developed a reported fuel leak, caught fire, and was completely destroyed. In the motorcycle category, Marcelo Quelho dropped out with a broken collarbone, Marco Maccaferri retired with a broken wrist, F. Moncasin stopped with a broken swingarm, and Rik Deprez dropped out for an unspecified reason. In addition, the quad of Romuald Bouviolle broke its steering system.
Tonight's resting spot of Ouarzazate is situated in the Draa Valley, and was built (initially as a military outpost) in 1928. The area is often used in movies, and is near to the Taourit Kasbah, the former residence of the powerful Pasha of Marrakech, El-Glaoui. The rally first visited Ouarzazate in 1994, and it passed through here last year as well.
Tomorrow will be the first day of a two-day marathon stage, which means riders will have just eight hours to rest tomorrow night. The section could well change the complexion of the entire rally.
Incidentally, the winner of today's car stage was motorcycle hero Stephane Peterhansel.
WEDNESDAY'S SPECIAL-TEST RESULTS
1. Joan Roma (KTM) Spain - 5 hours: 5 minutes: 48 seconds
2. Kari Tiainen (KTM) Finland - 5:7:16
3. Jordi Arcarons (KTM) Spain - 5:8:19
4. Alfie Cox (KTM) South Africa - 5:8:35
5. Fabrizio Meoni (KTM) Italy - 5:9:45
6. Carlo de Gavardo (KTM) Chile - 5:10:45
7. Richard Sainct (KTM) France - 5:11:03
8. Cyril Despres (KTM) France - 5:15:25
9. Isidre Esteve (KTM) Spain - 5:16:10
10. Giovani Sala (KTM) Italy - 5:22:36
1. Jordi Arcarons (KTM) Spain - 3 hours: 40 minutes: 58 seconds
2. Joan Roma (KTM) Spain - 3:41:46
3. Kari Tiainen (KTM) Finland - 3:43:29
4. Fabrizio Meoni (KTM) Italy - 3:44:03
5. Alfie Cox (KTM) South Africa - 3:44:34
6. Carlo de Gavardo (KTM) Chile - 3:45:15
7. Richard Sainct (KTM) France - 3:45:31
8. Isidre Esteve (KTM) Spain - 3:50:19 9. Cyril Despres (KTM) Spain - 3:50:27 10. Giovani Sala (KTM) Italy - 3:55:18
I had thought that posting updates from Africa would be near impossible, but as it turns out, it's easier than even in Europe. Journalists can open an account with telcom company DT Com, which will then send e-mails with attachments (via satellite) for about $8 each. At any rate, I was surprised to learn that the Europeans' cell phones work fine here in Morocco, though they won't when we cross into Mauritania. The former country is one of Africa's richest (although even it has severe financial problems), and the latter is one of its poorest, so I still haven't experienced the real hardship of Dakar.
Actually, I probably won't undergo substantial duress even in Mauritania, since the press-plane life is relatively plush. Sure, we lose sleep here and there and go without real showers for the most part, but the physical exertion is nothing compared to those traveling by vehicle (including, of course, the racers). After a morning flight to the stage's finishing point, much of the day is spent sitting in the press tent typing (hence the lengthy nature of these postings), or waiting for the riders to finish. I'd like to get out on the course to take better action photos for my print stories, but I should get the opportunity for that on stages that end with a special test, or if I get another chance to ride in a vehicle.
The regular meals dished out by TSO are also quite good. I had expected to go hungry now and again, but I wouldn't be surprised if I returned to the States having gained weight. They're served up in each day's bivouac, which is a large clearing surrounded by peaked awnings with rugs on the ground (although eating while sitting on the ground sounds uncomfortable, it's actually quite nice when you get used to it). Last night during dinner we were serenaded by a group of local Moroccans, dressed in pointy-toed shoes and smocks with peaked hoods. The group danced, played drums and a shrill-sounding horn, and sang quite beautifully, in a folkloric style known as Ahidouss. It was exactly what one would hope and expect to see and hear in Morocco, and it was really quite nice. If one tired of the music, he could always saunter over to the large screen on which videos of the day's stage were playing. Not only that, but my work was sufficiently caught up to allow six hours of sleep last night, and upon our arrival here in Ouarzazate, I found an airport bathroom where I could wash my hair and shave in the sink. Suffice it to say that I'm not exactly experiencing Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness on my first trip to Africa.
Not everyone has it so easy, however. The privateers, for example, must sometimes skip dinners, as they work late into night on their own motorcycles (after riding for much of the day). Each gets a trunk in which to load his spare parts and tools, and a plane transports it all to each day's finishing point. These guys are true gluttons for punishment, having paid good money to subject themselves to a substantial amount of abuse. That said, it's enlightening to see that the Dakar Rally is accessible not just to factory heroes, but also to regular Joes with a bit of cash. Though car-racer Mark Miller is the only American competitor this year (there are also a few Canadians), this is totally doable for many American off-road enthusiasts.
After a chilly night in Er-Rachidia that tested the limits of my sleeping bag (it passed, though I stayed in my clothes), today's weather was much nicer. Journalists and race officials lounged around on the Ouarzazate Airport tarmac in T-shirts, shorts and sunglasses, though tonight is expected to be quite cold once again.
At this evening's meal, the rally circus is expected to be joined by three Moroccan sports heroes - Hicham El Guerrouj (three-time 1500-meter World Champion), Nezha Bidouane (400-meter hurdles World Champion) and Khalid Rahiloa (WBA Super-Lightweight World Champion).