Dakar: On course for second title, Nasser Al-Attiyah wins in Stage 11

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Even though he holds the overall lead in the 2015 Dakar Rally, Nasser Al-Attiyah is not going conservative in the final stretch to Buenos Aires.

The quick Qatari and the 2011 winner is in attack mode as he seeks his second career Dakar title. Al-Attiyah took a narrow, 27-second win over fellow Mini driver Orlando Terranova in Thursday’s Stage 11 from Salta to Termas de Rio Hondo, Argentina.

It’s Al-Attiyah’s fifth stage win of the 2015 Dakar, and it boosts his overall lead to 29 minutes, 1 second over Thursday’s third-place finisher, Toyota driver Giniel de Villiers.

“We’re just trying to keep it like this,” said Al-Attiyah. “It’s very hard the Dakar because when we started on the second day, it was not easy until today. Now, we’ll try to bring everything back to Buenos Aires and to win this Dakar because it will be very important for me, for my sponsor Red Bull, for Qatar, for everybody who supports me.”

Al-Attiyah also hailed his Saudi counterpart, Yazeed Alrajhi, who was forced to abandon what had been a superb rookie Dakar for him because of exhaust system problems that he encountered just before the start of the special.

“It’s a shame what has happened to Yazeed…I feel sorry for him but this is the Dakar,” Al-Attiyah said. “You need to watch out for many, many things. He will learn and he will come back stronger next year. You need to be careful even until the podium. When you finish the Dakar, it’s only finished after the podium.”

Alrajhi had entered Stage 11 running third in the overall standings. He was one of several big names that had to withdraw on Thursday; the group included defending Dakar champ Nani Roma, who was not allowed to start after his crew had done an all-night repair of his car following a bad crash in Wednesday’s Stage 10.

Lithuania’s Benediktas Vanagas was a surprise fourth in Thursday’s action, just 40 seconds back of Al-Attiyah. At 24th in the overall standings, he’s on course for his best Dakar showing in three starts (65th in 2013, then 35th in 2014).

Vladimir Vasilyev, perhaps a more familiar name following his Stage 5 victory, completed the Top-5 (+ 1:16 behind Al-Attiyah) for his fourth such result of the event.

Robby Gordon had a highly eventful Thursday, and that may be putting it mildly. The former NASCAR and IndyCar pilot crashed into an embankment, but was able to carry on and bring his Gordini home in 13th position.

“Fortunately, we landed backward on all four tires,” said Gordon’s co-driver, Johnny Campbell, about the crash. “Robby restarted the car and took off. It could have been bad crashing at about 100 miles per hour and still scrubbing speed when we hit.”

Campbell also disclosed that the Gordini’s windshield wipers failed following the incident, leaving Gordon to deal with bad visibility as mud and debris hit the car.

Even so, the Americans finished just three minutes and change behind Al-Attiyah. They also jumped one spot to 19th in the overall standings.

NBCSN’s coverage of the Dakar Rally continues with Stage 11 highlights tomorrow at 4:30 p.m. ET.

2015 Dakar Rally – Overall Standings, Cars
(After Stage 11 – Salta to Termas de Rio Hondo, Argentina)

1. 301-Nasser Al-Attiyah (Mini), 37hrs, 12mins, 47secs
2. 303-Giniel de Villiers (Toyota), + 29mins, 1secs
3. 307-Krzysztof Holowczyc (Mini), + 1hr, 28mins, 49secs
4. 314-Erik Van Loon (Mini), + 2hrs, 54mins, 9secs
5. 309-Christian Lavieille (Toyota), + 3hrs, 4mins, 21secs
6. 310-Vladimir Vasilyev (Mini), + 3hrs, 13mins, 26secs
7. 315-Bernhard Ten Brinke (Toyota), + 3hrs, 41mins, 40secs
8. 306-Carlos Sousa (Mitsubishi), + 3hrs, 44mins, 20secs
9. 329-Aidyn Rakhimbayev (Mini), + 4hrs, 3mins, 9secs
10. 320-Ronan Chabot (SMG), 4hrs, 26mins, 29secs
19. 308-Robby Gordon (Gordini), + 7hrs, 44mins, 36secs

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).