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

F1 tests: Mercedes innovates with wheel adjustment system

Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images
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MONTMELÓ, Spain — Veteran Kimi Raikkonen set the fastest time on the second day of Formula One preseason testing on Thursday, but Mercedes still garnered more attention by introducing an innovative wheel adjustment system.

On-board footage showed defending champion Lewis Hamilton pulling the steering wheel back and forth on the front straight to apparently change the angle of the front wheels on his Mercedes car.

The team stayed tight-lipped about the car’s new feature but guaranteed it was “safe” and “legal.”

“I probably won’t shed a great deal more light than what you saw on the TV but yeah we have a system in the car, it’s a novel idea,” team technical director James Allison told F1 TV. ”We’ve got a name for it, it’s called DAS, if you’re interested, and it just introduces an extra dimension for the steering, for the driver, which we hope will be useful during the year. But precisely how we use it and why we use it, that’s something we will keep to ourselves.”

Allison said governing body FIA knew in advance that the team was introducing the new system.

“It’s something we’ve been talking to them (about) for some time,” he said. “The rules are pretty clear about what’s permitted on steering systems and we’re pretty confident that it matches those requirements. I’m pleased we got it on the car, it seems to be useful, and we’ll see over the coming days how it benefits us.”

Hamilton said he was still trying to get used to the system, but praised the team for coming up with the innovation.

“I’ve only had one morning on (it, so) I don’t really have a lot to talk about with it. We’re trying to get on top of it, understand it, but safety-wise no problem today and the FIA are OK with the project.

“For me it’s really encouraging to see that my team is continuing to innovate and stay ahead of the game, and I think that’s down to the great minds in the team and so hopefully that’ll work to our benefit.”

Hamilton led the time charts on Wednesday but was only ninth-fastest on Thursday.

MORE: Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas fastest in Day 1 of F1 practice
MORE: Sergio Perez fastest early on Day 2 of F1 Practice

The 40-year-old Raikkonen, who has a chance this season to break the record for most race starts in F1, was fastest with a time of 1 minute, 17.091 seconds in his Alfa Romea. He was 0.2 seconds quicker than Sergio Pérez with Racing Point. Daniel Ricciardo of Renault was third.

Raikkonen caused a red flag near the end of the afternoon session when his car stopped on the track with an apparent mechanical issue. The Finnish driver had spun earlier in the session, as did Valtteri Bottas of Mercedes, Romain Grosjean of Haas and Pierre Gasly of Alpha Tauri, formerly known as Toro Rosso.

Grosjean had the most laps among the 13 drivers who went to the track on Thursday, with 158.

Bottas was the slowest driver of the day, while Sebastian Vettel was sixth-fastest with Ferrari.

Pérez had set the quickest time in the morning session. The Mexican driver had been third fastest on Wednesday, behind Hamilton and Bottas.

Drivers will be back on the track on Friday to close out the first week of testing. Teams will have another three days to test next week.

Preseason testing has been reduced from eight to six days to help compensate for the record 22 races on the calendar, including a new Vietnam Grand Prix and the return of the Dutch GP. Midseason testing also has been eliminated.

The season opens on March 15 at the Australian GP.

The Barcelona-Catalunya track will host the Spanish GP on May 10.