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

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.