Dakar: Robby Gordon hits Stage 5 podium; Russia’s Vasilyev takes narrow win (VIDEO)

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Robby Gordon’s roller coaster of a 2015 Dakar Rally continued on Thursday.

This time, however, he and co-driver Johnny Campbell went way up.

Gordon, who opened the event with a second-place finish in Stage 1 but has since been bitten by mechanical issues, started Thursday’s Stage 5 from Copiapo to Antofagasta, Chile from the 18th position.

He quickly settled into a front-running pace and actually led the field early at the second way point. His No. 308 Gordini lost time going into the next way point, but Gordon would ultimately move back into podium position at the 10th and final way point before finishing third, 1 minute, 25 seconds behind winner Vladimir Vasilyev of Russia.

It’s a big result for the Gordon/Campbell duo after a tough ending to their Stage 4 on Wednesday. Gordon opened that stage (Chilecito, Argentina to Copiapo) strong with the second-fastest time through the first way point.

But a mechanical problem in the Gordini’s drivetrain forced the team to stop and make repairs. The issues led to the loss of almost an hour and a half on the clock and a dismal 47th-place finish.

Wednesday’s problems came two days after Gordon and Campbell lost more than four hours in Stage 2 because of overheating brakes and then a tow-in to the finish after an additional breakdown.

“With stage wins in previous Rally events and good runs like today, we prove that we can run with anyone,” Gordon said Thursday in a release. “None of our issues this week were really avoidable and they were freak incidents. We’re hopeful that these weird issues are behind us and our plan is to win multiple stages before the end of this year’s Dakar to make our presence known.”

Altogether, it’s been up and down for the former NASCAR and IndyCar driver so far. With two podiums in five stages, it appears the Gordini has a decent pace to work with as long as it can hold up and stay reliable.

But whether you’re a single-car privateer like Gordon or part of a multi-car squad from big boys Mini, Peugeot, or Toyota, attaining dependable reliability in the Dakar can be quite the struggle.

Up front, Mini driver Vasilyev and Toyota’s Yazeed Alrajhi swapped the lead in the final stretch before Vasilyev won the stage by a mere 20 seconds after having held a lead of six and a half minutes over the Saudi at the fifth way point.

Vasilyev keeps Mini a perfect 5-for-5 in the 2015 Dakar after holding off Alrajhi, who looks ready to score his first Dakar stage win very soon after two podiums in the last three days. Still, the rookie didn’t sound like he’s ready to raise his expectations too much.

“I think I can do better, but we’ll see what’s going on and when we can push more,” Alrajhi said. “I hope that I’m one of the main actors in the race and that we win the Dakar soon. Not this year – this year, I’ll take it easy and not take risks.

“After all, my fans would be angry saying, ‘Why on your first time did you fight to win and you’re out after 6 stages?’ There’s a long way to go but if this year, I finish, I hope, on the podium, then next year, there will be no excuses for me and I’ll have a good chance to win.”

Nasser Al-Attiyah was fourth-quickest on Thursday, down 3 minutes, 24 seconds to Vasilyev. But he was able to extend his overall lead to more than 10 minutes over Toyota’s Giniel de Villiers, who finished off the podium for the first time in the 2015 Dakar with a sixth-place showing. Peugeot’s Stephane Peterhansel was fifth.

NBCSN’s coverage of the Dakar Rally continues Friday at 4 p.m. ET.

2015 Dakar Rally – Overall Standings, Cars
(After Stage 5 – Copiapo to Antofagasta)
1. 301-Nasser Al-Attiyah (Mini), 16hrs, 53mins, 26secs
2. 303-Giniel de Villiers (Toyota), + 10mins, 35secs
3. 325-Yazeed Alrajhi (Toyota), + 20mins, 29secs
4. 307-Krzyzstof Holowczyc (Mini), + 48mins, 55secs
5. 314-Erik Van Loon (Mini), + 53mins, 25secs
6. 315-Bernhard Ten Brinke (Toyota), +56mins, 19secs
7. 310-Vladimir Vasilyev (Mini), + 1hr, 9mins, 52secs
8. 309-Christian Lavieille (Toyota), + 1hr, 13mins, 59secs
9. 302-Stephane Peterhansel (Peugeot), + 1hr, 19mins, 17secs
10. 329-Aidyn Rakhimbayev (Mini), + 1hr, 21mins, 32secs

Graham Rahal’s ‘Weighty Issue’

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MONTEREY, California – Graham Rahal admits that he can’t wait until the day he doesn’t have to worry about his weight. Being a 6-foot-2, big-boned individual can have its advantages, but not when it comes to fitting into an IndyCar.

That is why the son of 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner and three-time CART IndyCar champion Bobby Rahal has begun a body shaping therapy known as “Sculpting” that uses lasers to trim away body fat.

“Honestly, it is no secret, I’m not shy about this, that I’ve struggled with my weight,” the 201-pound Rahal told a group of reporters during INDYCAR’s Open Test at Laguna Seca on Thursday. “I can guarantee you that from a strength perspective and a stamina perspective, there’s very few guys out here that can keep up with me. I’m just not a super skinny build. It’s never been my thing.

“I’ve tried. We’ve kind of looked around. There was some mutual interest from them to look into trying this, see if it works. I’ll be honest. I was always very skeptical of the stuff. Where I’m at, I’ve done one treatment. I can’t even tell you today if it’s something that really works or not.”

That led Rahal to try out the sculpting process that was invented by a doctor who found it with swelling in kid’s cheeks. The “Sculpture” process uses a laser that kills the fatty cells.

“It takes a long time, I think,” Rahal said. “It’s going to take multiple I think to get there.”

Watch Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on NBC at 3 p.m.

A race driver needs to be thin, yet very strong to have the physical strength and stamina to compete at a high level in the race car. When it comes to the NTT IndyCar Series, it’s even more important because of the size of the cars and tight cockpit.

Additionally, the extra weight can impact the performance of the race car. The lighter the driver, the less weight inside of the car. In INDYCAR, drivers are weighed and for the lighter drivers, lead weight is added to the car to meet a requirement.

But in Rahal’s case, the lead weight ballast has to be reduced and that sometimes throws off the center of gravity in the car.

“The facts are it’s not going to work if you don’t work out, too, and eat well,” Rahal said. “It doesn’t do anything. But earlier this year, man, I had given up drinking completely for three, four months. I was working out every day, twice a day on most occasions. I went to a nutritionist, doing everything. I literally was not losing an ounce. It was the most frustrating period of time for me.

“I am the biggest guy here. Is it ever going to be equal for me? No matter what these guys talk about with driver ballast, it’s a whole different thing, where my center of gravity is.”

That is what led the 30-year-old driver from Ohio to study the “Sculpting” procedure. He realizes he is never going to have the metabolism of some of the thinner drivers, but he needs to maintain a weight that minimizes his disadvantage.

“It is a challenge,” he admitted. “Ricky Taylor and Helio Castroneves (on Penske Team Acura in IMSA) weigh 60 pounds less than me or something. There is no ballast there. That’s a big swing, a lot of weight to be carrying around.

“We have to try anything we can. If you’re going to be serious, try to find the performance advantage and the edge, you’ve got to look outside of the box.

“It is something new for me. But the fight I guess against being an ultra-skinny guy.

“I fly home with most of these guys after races, I see most of these guys a lot of times, they’re sitting there eating In-N-Out Burger, whatever else. Literally I cannot do it. If I do it, it immediately reflects for me. These guys you see them the next weekend, they’re like this big.

“It’s like, (crap), it’s not my build.”

Because of Rahal’s height and size, he chose to step away from the endurance races for Team Penske in IMSA at the end of last season. He was replaced at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring by fellow IndyCar driver Alexander Rossi.

Rahal complained that the steering wheel actually hit his legs inside of the Acura, making it difficult for him to drive on the challenging road courses. Since that time, Acura Team Penske has moved the steering column up by a few inches, and it no longer impacts a driver the size of Rahal.

For the IMSA season-ending Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta on Oct. 12, Rahal will be back in the Team Penske Acura.

“Back in the (Team Penske) shop three weeks ago, I could actually turn the steering wheel, which I was shocked about,” Rahal said. “My head touched the roof, whatever, I’m used to that. Physically being able to steer, which I now should be able to do better.

“So I’m excited about it. It’s another great opportunity obviously with Penske. But more importantly for me is Acura, Honda. It’s a great thing to be back in.

“But that wasn’t a weight thing. It’s purely size. They just don’t build cars for guys my size. I used to talk to J.W. (Justin Wilson) about that. It’s the facts of life. Even the GT cars. You would think a GT car would be big. I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a GT car, I was comfortable in either. They’re built for small guys. That’s the way it goes.”

Rahal is taller than his father, Bobby, who is also his IndyCar team owner along with David Letterman and Michael Lanigan.

“I blame my dad,” Rahal said. “I do. You can tell him I said that. I told him, ‘It’s a genetic thing. I got good genes in some ways.’

“I told my wife this the other day, I’m very excited for someday when my career ends just to have a ‘Dad Bod,’ be able to let go for a minute, see how things turn out, because this is getting a little bit exhausting.

“We’re going to stay committed through the winter. I try my hardest every year, but I never tried harder this year to be thin. I weigh about the same as last year, but it took so much effort to get there, I just have to think outside the box.”