Dakar: A clear run for Rafal Sonik to quads title after Casale, Lafuente withdraw (VIDEO)

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Barring something even more dramatic than what occurred Wednesday in the quads at the 2015 Dakar Rally, Rafal Sonik will be the new champion in the category.

In a stunning turn of events, defending champ Ignacio Casale and Sergio Lafuente – both of whom served as Sonik’s closest pursuers in the overall standings – withdrew from the event in Stage 10 from Calama, Chile to Salta, Argentina.

Casale was fastest early on in Wednesday’s stage, but he sustained a mechanical failure on his vehicle that proved too much for him to overcome. He exits the 2015 Dakar with three stage wins.

Also leaving the fight is Lafuente, who had suffered a rollover a few kilometers before the refueling point on the stage. He reportedly tried to get his vehicle going again, but he’s now out of the event as well.

Sonik himself also had difficulties on Wednesday, including what he described as a “nasty fall” at kilometer 199.

But the Polish rider persevered for a fourth-place finish in the stage, which was won by Paraguay’s Nelson Sanabria in his second triumph of the event (+ 3:40 over Jeremias Gonzalez). And with Casale and Lafuente’s exits, Sonik now holds an overall lead of almost three hours with three stages remaining.

News of Casale’s withdrawal in particular seemed to stun Sonik in the bivouac.

“Ah, I saw he had some problem with his quad, but I didn’t know Casale had withdrawn,” he said. “I saw his chain was broken and, since it’s a marathon stage [where riders cannot get help from their teams], I think that’s why he didn’t try to stay in the race.”

As for his own mishap on Wednesday, Sonik knows it could have been worse.

“It hurts, but my legs are still in one piece and my quad’s fine,” he said. “Yesterday, I had to keep the fuel tank in place because the screws had blown off – I turned the pages in my road book with my left hand, I held the fuse of my alternator in my right hand, and the handlebar in my mouth!

“Repairing all this cost me 40 minutes…But that was yesterday. Today was okay! It’s quite rare to crash at high speeds and emerge unscathed. It happened today, and that’s great.”

Ayrat Mardeev was able to hold teammate Eduard Nikolaev at bay in their ongoing battle at the top of the truck category.

Mardeev was second to Nikolaev in Wednesday’s Stage 10 but minimized the damage to his overall lead by finishing just 49 seconds back. As a result, Mardeev’s edge shrank just slightly to 13 minutes, 21 seconds despite Nikolaev’s sixth stage win of the event.

Nikolaev may be the fastest driver in the trucks but after Mardeev’s clutch drive on Wednesday, that may no longer matter. A lot can happen in three days’ time, but Nikolaev needs Mardeev to falter – and soon.

The title will likely come down to those two drivers now after Andrey Karginov struggled to a 14th place finish on Wednesday and ceded almost 23 minutes. In the overall, he’s still in third position but is now 42:46 off the pace of Mardeev.

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed their new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with US-based Ford Motors in a press event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Team Principle Christian Horner. They are the only Formula 1 team to launch in the United States, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen had already wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

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Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts will inevitably turn to establishing a dynasty – and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his principle rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.