Dakar: Mardeev (trucks), Sonik (quads) maintain course to overall wins

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Ayrat Mardeev continues to keep his overall truck lead at double-digits with one stage remaining in the 2015 Dakar Rally.

Mardeev finished fifth in Friday’s penultimate Stage 12 from Termas de Rio Hondo to Rosario, Argentina – three spots and 1 minute, 32 seconds ahead of his closest pursuer, KAMAZ teammate Eduard Nikolaev (eighth on Friday).

With only 393 kilometers and a 174-km special to go on Saturday, Mardeev controls the Dakar by 12 minutes, 43 seconds over Nikolaev, who leads all truck drivers with six stage wins but looks as if he’ll run out of time in his pursuit of his fellow Russian.

It’s been feast or famine for Mardeev in his Dakar driving career – two retirements in 2012 and 2014 sandwiching a second-place finish overall in 2013.

That course seems poised to continue but this time, he’s set to reach the highest of highs provided he can avoid trouble in Saturday’s Stage 13.

Up front, Hans Stacey earned his second consecutive stage win and his third of the Dakar. It was a tight one though, as less than 30 seconds covered him, second-place Marcel Van Vliet, and third-place Gerard de Rooy.

Rafal Sonik can’t help but be a bit cautious as he appears to have his first Dakar championship in his hands with one day left.

Sonik finished fourth on Friday by a little more than 10 minutes back of winner Christophe Declerck, who picked up his second consecutive stage victory.

But while Declerck and everyone else can go nuts and fight for the stage win, Sonik must stay even-keeled as he rushes toward Buenos Aires.

“It was not stressful. It just required patience, because we could not overtake,” Sonik said of his afternoon. “It was so dusty and dangerous that patience pays, as you say.”

He also must stay on top of any potential problems with his quad that could ruin his Dakar.

Sonik mentioned on Friday that he had to replace his quad’s fuel link and valve the night before and also had “a small problem” in Friday’s liaison section.

So while he’s glad that the end is in sight, he’s not thinking about a party with his team just yet.

“…There is a reason to be superstitious, but there is a reason to feel very happy about being closer to the finishing line,” he said. “It’s like a [soccer] game. It’s over when it’s over, so it’s not over yet.”

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).