After two days of deliberation, TSO boss Hubert Auriol revealed Wednesday night in a brief announcement that in accordance with article 11.2 in the regulations, the speeding penalties (both time and monetary) of Tuesday would be halved. This means that instead of a 29-minute penalty, two-time winner Richard Sainct will lose 14-and-a-half minutes - much better for him, to be sure, but still a major obstacle if he is to win again. Also halved was the penalty to Italian Giovanni Sala, who will now see nine-and-a-half minutes added to his score, instead of 19 minutes.
"I will say I'm happy," Sala diplomatically responded when asked his opinion on the matter, but it was clear he, like Sainct, was disappointed. Although Sala is mainly considered to be a support rider for defending champ Fabrizio Meoni, Sala could be given the go-ahead to race for himself if he were ahead at the halfway point. Many think that it was actually Meoni who sped in the slow-zone on Tuesday (his number 1 and Sala's number 7 are nearly indistinguishable, and they're both on KTM LC8 twins), and to make matters worse, Sala is currently fighting a nasty cold that was passed to him by Meoni. Such is the lot of a support rider.
Making the situation even more confusing was the organization's flip-flopping of Wednesday's stage- and overall results. In other words, Wednesday was won not by Joan Roma (as we reported yesterday), but by Jordi Arcarons, and yesterday's overall classifications were led not by Arcarons, but by Roma.
With the penalty, Sainct slipped from seventh to ninth in the overall standings, and he was over 19 minutes behind the leader this morning. Sala remained in 10th place, but was over 26 minutes off the pace.
With that matter behind them, the riders began at 5:00 on Thursday morning the first portion of a two-day Marathon stage, which will give them only eight hours of rest before tomorrow's second portion. The Marathon stage includes two special tests (218 miles today and 229 miles tomorrow) and nearly 1000 miles, and it was expected to start sorting the riders out. Now, with the first portion complete, it seems to be doing just that.
Today's section was quite a long one - 793 miles from Ouarzazate, Morocco, south and west along the Atlas Mountains to the coastal city of Tan-Tan. It began with a 109-mile pavement transfer, followed by a fast, 218-mile special test from Foum Zguid to Foum El Hassan. Then came a 165-mile paved transfer section to Tan-Tan.
Chilean Carlo de Gavardo (pictured) was the fastest rider through by nearly three minutes on his KTM, despite being slowed by a careburetor problem in the first three miles and a lost rear brake in the last 25 miles.
"It was very dangerous," de Gavardo said. "Not all of the holes were in the road book, because there were a lot of them. You had to watch very closely and not try to go too fast because you couldn't see them all. In the first five kilometers, the motorcycle had a problem. It was bogging - something with the carburetor - and I lost about five minutes. Then I started to go very fast to catch the riders ahead. It was a risky decision...The rhythm that Roma had was very good, so I stayed behind him. I had to risk a lot, but I managed to pass Fabrizio, Jordi and Alfie [Cox]. It was risky because the bikes were throwing a lot of rocks - especially Fabrizio's." (In fact, the rear tire on Meoni's KTM LC8 twin was bald down to the cords in places, and he had several huge dents in his rims.)
Spaniards Isidre Esteve and Joan Roma were second- and third-quickest, respectively, with South African Cox and Frenchman Sainct fourth and fifth. Though the conditions were unfriendly to the big twin, Meoni was sixth, his fuel-starvation problems now seemingly a thing of the past.
When asked if the stage was good, Meoni replied, "Good because it's over. I always hate this stage. Dangerous, uninteresting, not fun - nothing good to say... You could get hurt, and this year it was even worse with this motorcycle. I did okay, but when the rear tire disintegrated in the last 75 kilometers [47 miles], I had to let the first two go."
Of note was Swede Pg Lundmark's 10th-place result on his BMW 1150R - the first top-10 test score for the German manufacturer so far in this rally.
As this is the midway portion of a Marathon stage, no overall standings are being compiled by TSO. However, it is known that Finn Kari Tiainen - second overall as of this morning - experienced wheel problems and finished 37th in today's special test. He was over an hour slower than de Gavardo, effectively ruining his chances for a win. As for the lead position, unofficial calculations have it still occupied by Roma, but de Gavardo has jumped from sixth to second (a minute and 24 seconds back), and Meoni has jumped from fifth to third, about five minutes behind de Gavardo. Clearly, the Marathon stage is achieving its intended purpose of mixing things up. In fact, Frenchman Cyril Despres injured his hip ligaments in a crash today, activated his distress beacon and was picked up by a helicopter.
Here in Tan-Tan, a mandatory break of eight hours is being imposed before riders begin (just after midnight!) the 492-mile second portion of the Marathon stage.
THURSDAY'S SPECIAL-TEST RESULTS
1. Carlo de Gavardo (KTM) Chile - 3 hours: 33 minutes: 3 seconds
2. Isidre Esteve (KTM) Spain - 3:35:58
3. Joan Roma (KTM) Spain - 3:36:44
4. Alfie Cox (KTM) South Africa - 3:36:49
5. Richard Sainct (KTM) France - 3:37:14
6. Fabrizio Meoni (KTM) Italy - 3:37:40
7. Giovanni Sala (KTM) Italy - 3:40:38
8. Jordi Arcarons (KTM) Spain - 3:42:42
9. Eric Bernard (KTM) France - 3:57:55
10. Pg Lundmark (BMW) Sweden - 4:1:29
What with flying from airport to airport, I had been somewhat disappointed with the lack of contact with the local residents in the rally's African portion, but today I got the opportunity for a bit of interaction. Upon landing in the Tan-Tan airport, Judita Tomaselli (a French free-lancer who puts together the race's official book) organized a whirlwind tour of the local port. We collected Giancarlo Giannobile (of Italian magazine Moto Sprint) and Franz Lidz (of Sports Illustrated) and hired a taxi for the 40-mile round-trip. At the port, fisherman worked on their nets and unloaded fish from their dilapidated boats, and locals fished off of the docks (one boy let me toss his baited hook in the water, and it wasn't 15 seconds before I had landed a fish). As they chatted and worked, the Muslims walked about with arms draped over shoulders or hand in hand, a common Arab habit that shows the people's warmth and friendliness. The excursion was a welcome break from the race, even if the diesel Mercedes we were in only made it back to camp minus one cylinder.
Whereas I spend the European portion of the rally bonding with the Italian Acerbis entourage, I am now getting along swingingly with the press contingent. There are reporters here from France, Italy, Hungary, Belgium, Japan, Spain, Germany and even Senegal. I hang out most often with Giancarlo and, since he joined the rally this morning, fellow American Franz.
Last night was the coldest camping night we've had yet, but the sky was beautiful. When nature called, I grabbed my head-mounted flashlight and toilet paper, and headed into the desert. There, away from the light, noise and bustle of the airport runway, I had the impression of being pressed into the ground by the limitless, star-filled sky. The weather is considerably warmer here in Tan-Tan. I'm comfortable in shirt-sleeves, and will have to break out the sun-block tomorrow. Tonight's bivouac looks to be a fun one. In addition to the typical peaked awnings over rugs, there is a stage, a sound system, two bonfires and several other signs of an impending party of immense proportions.