CORDOBA, January 15 – Carlos Sainz grabbed a record-equalling 23rd stage win on the Dakar Rally on Friday, but Volkswagen teammate Nasser Al-Attiyah was poised to comfortably inherit the Spaniard's championship crown.Sainz, who started the 12th and penultimate stage in third place after a disastrous Thursday where he had lost an hour – and his title – with a broken suspension, came home 2min 43sec in front of South African teammate Giniel de Villiers.
Qatari driver Al-Attiyah finished the 555km special from San Juan to Cordoba, which was largely a quagmire following violent overnight storms, 6min 11sec behind Sainz.
But he has a 48min 21sec overall lead on De Villiers and 1 hour 21min 16sec advantage over the Spaniard.
For Sainz it was a sixth stage win of 2011 and 23rd in all, but, barring a major mishap, it will not prevent his Qatari rival, last year’s runner-up, from taking the title on Saturday’s gentle 181km finale into Buenos Aires.
"It’s a very difficult feeling, you know because you need a lot of concentration from the start until the finish," said Al-Attiyah.
"You don’t want to make any mistakes. It really was the hardest stage of my life, because I had to keep concentrated and not make any mistakes.
"Sometimes I was going fast, sometimes slow because I needed to keep my concentration and keep the same pace, but it was OK. We finished the stage without any problems and I’m really quite happy."
Sainz said that his 23rd career stage win, which equalled the mark of French driver Stephane Peterhansel, was little consolation for seeing his title slip away.
"We drove well. We had to overtake a lot of competitors. There was a lot of dust and we had a puncture," said the former double world rally champion.
"This 23rd stage victory is a good thing, but it wasn’t our goal. Peterhansel has 23 as well, so we’ll have to see who can get the record tomorrow."
In the motorcycle section, Spanish rider Marc Coma rode his KTM machine to victory to virtually wrap up the 2011 title.
Coma finished 37sec ahead of closest rival, and defending champion, Cyril Despres of France on another KTM to boost his overall lead to 16min 36sec ahead of Saturday’s conclusion.
"Today was complicated due to all the rain that fell last night. As a result, it was a very technical stage, like in endurance racing, but it went fine," said Coma, after securing his fifth stage win of this year’s event.
"There is still a 190km stage left to race on Saturday. Normally, there shouldn’t be any complications, but we still need to race them, it’s there to be done. It just shows that the route has been designed to ensure that there is suspense up to the end, so we’ll just have to wait and see tomorrow."
Despres said the heavy overnight rain had made running difficult.
"I had to go on the attack, it’s second nature for me anyway, so I’ve been going for it since the first kilometre, even if I slowed a bit at the end," said the Frenchman.
"I gave it everything I had and it was a long day. It must have rained a lot last night because the tracks were churned up with lots of mud. It was hellish."