It was a good day in hot Chile for the five South African-built Toyota Hilux 4x4s contesting the Dakar Rally on Thursday. After a second crossing of the Andes Mountains and the heat of the Atacama Desert, all five safely reached the overnight bivouac, with Giniel de Villiers and Dirk von Zitzewitz retaining second place overall.
With third place on the 319-kilometre special stage between Fiambala and Copiapo, the Toyota Imperial South Africa Team duo closed to within 50 minutes of the overall leaders and defending champions Stephane Peterhansel and Jean Paul Cottret of France in a Mini.
Nani Roma of Spain and French co-driver Michel Perin took the stage win in a Mini ahead of Americans Robbie Gordon and Kellon Walch in a Hummer, with De Villiers and Von Zitzewitz just seven seconds behind the Americans and 1 min 38 sec in front of fourth-placed Peterhansel and Perin.
Roma and Perin move up to third overall and are 40 min 45 sec behind De Villiers and Von Zitzewitz.
Of significance for the South African/German duo in Imperial Toyota Hilux #301 was the fact that the Russian pairing of Leonid Novitskiy and Konstantin Zhiltsov (Mini), who started the day's stage 16 minutes behind them in the general classification, managed to finish ninth only and have now dropped to fourth overall.
'A lot tougher than I expected'
"We just wanted to have a clean stage, but for sure, today's stage was a lot tougher than I expected it to be," said De Villiers.
"With a long liaison this morning at high altitude, that makes you really tired as well and then you have to do a tough stage like today. It needed a lot of concentration.
"There were quite long dune crossings and really tricky places in the dunes. Then, on the tracks there were lots of rocks, so you really had to be very precise so as not to hit any rocks. It was not an easy day, but we're happy to be here."
Von Zitzewitz added: "We've studied the route very carefully each night and been well prepared for each stage. Our preparations certainly paid off today."
Grit and determination
In the motorbike race, Darryl Curtis showed all the grit and determination of the champion extreme bike rider he is as he fought through the pain barrier to complete the third last special stage of the Dakar.
Hurting from injuries Â– a sore back and arm and heavy bruising after a tumble on WednesdayÂ’s stage Â– the Broadlink KTM Rally Team rider brought his factory-supplied and prepared KTM 450 Rally #37 home in a brave 75th place.
He was 1 hr 36 min behind the stage winner, Frans Verhoeven of the Netherlands, and 1 hr 21 min behind team-mate Riaan van Niekerk on Broadlink KTM #40.
A trouble-free ride
Van Niekerk enjoyed another trouble-free ride and finished 21st on the stage. He is now a hugely impressive 14th overall in his first Dakar Rally.
A total of 126 bikes from the original 183 starters made it to the end of Thursday's stage, which offered a mixture of stony tracks in the beginning followed by mountains covered in sand and big valleys with a lot of navigation in the second part.
Leading overall with two stages remaining is defending champion Cyril Despres of France on a factory KTM. He has ridden a total of nearly 38 hours of special stages since the rally started in Lima, Peru, on 5 January and leads team-mate Ruben Faria of Portugal by over five minutes.
'I really didn't think I'd finish'
Curtis commented: "It was quite rough out there today Â– lots of sand. After my big crash yesterday I really battled through the stage. I've never experienced so much pain and I really had to dig deep to make it to the finish. I could barely hold on with my left arm, but I concentrated on riding safely and did as best as I could. I really didn't think I'd finish."
Van Niekerk, who had a much easier day, said: "The special in Chile was quite rough Â– a lot of sand and a lot of navigation. It was hard to make up time, especially if riders were following you. Overall, I'm feeling good and looking forward to the last two stages and reaching the finish in Santiago."