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‘Mr. Dakar’ Peterhansel wins 13th Dakar title

Peugeot’s driver Stephane Peterhansel and co-driver Jean Paul Cottret compete during Stage 11 of the 2017 Dakar Rally between San Juan and Rio Cuarto, in Argentina, on January 13, 2017 © AFP / Franck Fife

RIO CUARTO, Argentina, Jan 14France’s Stéphane Peterhansel won his 13th Dakar Rally title on Saturday, declaring the latest win was the sweetest following an epic battle with French Peugeot teammate Sébastien Loeb.

The 51-year-old Peterhansel added the 2017 title to his previous six wins on four wheels and his six on two, the first coming in 1991 on the world’s toughest rally.

“This victory is particularly sweet because the competition was so high,” said Peterhansel.

“Battling Sébastien and finishing just a few minutes ahead, it’s no mean feat.”

Sam Sunderland became the first Briton to win the motorbike section after the heartbreak of being forced to retire from two previous editions.

The KTM rider secured victory after the 12th and final 64km special in Argentina in which he finished sixth. He took the title with a 32-minute advantage on nearest rival Matthias Walkner of Austria.

“Unbelievable. When I crossed the line I felt all the emotion hit me,” said the 27-year-old Dubai-based Sunderland.

“The weight on my shoulders of the race over the last week, leading the rally has been really heavy. It’s the first Dakar I’ve ever finished and to finish first is an incredible feeling. I’m really lost for words.”

Peterhansel and nine-times world rally champion Loeb dominated the gruelling two-week car race winning eight stages between them with the former taking three and the later five.

Peterhansel finished 5min 13sec ahead of Loeb in the overall standings with third-placed Cyril Despres at 33min 28sec handing Peugeot their first podium sweep since 1990, before the French car maker withdrew from the race to return in 2015.

Peugeot team manager Bruno Famin (centre) is flanked by co-driver Jean Paul Cottret (left) and driver Stephane Peterhansel as they celebrate their victory at the Dakar Rally in Argentina, on January 14, 2017 © AFP / FRANCK FIFE

Despres also won a stage for Peugeot who grabbed control from the second stage leaving rivals Toyota and Mini with no chance.

The race turned into a two-horse battle between Peterhansel and 42-year-old Loeb, who was competing for the second time after finishing ninth in 2016.

“It was high intensity. It’s aged me,” admitted Peterhansel, who first competed in 1988.

“At the half-way point, there were four drivers capable of winning, and it finishied with a duel with Sébastien.

“The team armed us equally with perfect cars and above all didn’t give us any race instructions.

“It was very fair play and sporting for us. It was the drivers and their co-pilots who made the difference.”

– ‘Not just luck’ –

In a seesaw battle Peterhansel edged Loeb after he was rewarded for his sporting decision to stop and help seriously injured Slovenian motorbike rider Simon Marcic on Thursday.

Loeb had originally been declared the winner of the 10th stage in Argentina but organisers handed Peterhansel back 14min 13sec to put him back in pole position.

And Peterhansel said the final victory came down to his tactics the following day when he piled the pressure on Loeb who then suffered a puncture.

“I knew that Sébastien was faster,” he explained.

“He needed to take three minutes from me and it wasn’t going to be simple, he had to race at 100 percent and from then he exposed himself to errors and that’s what happened. So it’s not just luck.”

Loeb added: “We gave it everything, held nothing back. We had a beautiful race. Second this year, we’ll have to do better next year.”

Qatari Nasser Al Attiyah — winner in 2011 and 2015 — was forced out in the fourth stage after badly damaging his Toyota with Spaniard Nani Roma and South Africa’s Giniel de Villiers finishing fourth and fifth respectively for the Japanese manufacturer.

Sunderland meanwhile was celebrating his debut bike win after retiring in his previous attempts in 2012 and 2014 with mechanical problems.

Sunderland took the race lead after the fifth stage, handing KTM their 16th win in a row.

The 2016 winner, Toby Price of Australia, pulled out of this year’s race during the fourth stage.

The gruelling 9,000km rally had been plagued by torrential rain in Bolivia with stages six and nine cancelled and a further three shortened, cutting a third off the original course.