Double Formula One world champion Fernando Alonso came close to a first Dakar Rally stage win on Monday after finishing second to French amateur Mathieu Serradori in the 477km loop around Wadi al-Dawasir in Saudi Arabia.
Fellow Spaniard Carlos Sainz, in a Mini buggy, saw his overall lead to Qatar’s defending champion Nasser Al-Attiyah trimmed to six minutes and 40 seconds after the eighth stage in the southern dunes.
The motorcycle riders had their stage cancelled as a mark of respect following the death on Sunday of popular Portuguese veteran Paulo Goncalves.
American Ricky Brabec, on a Honda, leads Chilean Pablo Quintanilla by 24 minutes.
The absence of motorcycle tracks, with the riders usually preceding the cars, made navigation more tricky through the dunes.
SRT Racing’s Serradori, a former biker who dedicated his stage win to Goncalves, took advantage of the tracks laid by others to become the first amateur in 32 years to beat the professional drivers and teams.
Alonso, in his first Dakar with former motorcycle winner Marc Coma alongside, could also claim the drive of the day with a time quicker than all the favourites with their years of experience of desert driving.
“I didn’t know if in the Dakar I would be half an hour behind the biggest specialists, and being close to them on days like this, even ahead of them, was not in any of my sensible goals,” said the Toyota driver.
The Spaniard, also a two-time Le Mans 24 Hours winner, moved up to 13th overall after finishing four minutes behind Serradori and said it had been an amazing day. His previous best in a stage was fourth.
“We had one puncture unfortunately and we lost a little bit of momentum there, but otherwise the stage was nearly perfect and Marc was unbelievable, you know in the dunes, the navigation,” he said.
“It seems that I can get a good rhythm, a good flow in the dunes and I’m enjoying so far this second week of the Dakar,” added Alonso, who lost two and a half hours with a broken wheel and suspension on day two.
In the truck category, Russian Andrey Karginov took his third successive stage victory and had a 27-minute lead over Kamaz team mate Anton Shibalov.
The rally, one of the toughest events on the motorsport calendar, ends in Qiddiya on January 17.