Inevitably it seems, outside forces cause problems for the organizers of the Dakar Rally. In Africa it was the threat of terrorist attacks that often forced stages to be cancelled and eventually caused the whole event to abandon the continent and move Dakar to South America.
This year it's the weather that's causing headaches for everyone. Today's (Friday) special stage had to be cancelled due to snow and rain in the Andes. The rally was due to cross at Paso San Francisco; one of 42 passes between Argentina and Chile. At 15,577 feet it is one of the world's highest mountain passes and during mid-summer it's usually free of snow. When I crossed it in 2009 while covering the Dakar Rally we saw virtually no snow even at that altitude. But this year is different.
Rain has affected the competition – just ask Robby Gordon. On the fourth stage he had to stop and help retrieve Nasser Al-Attiyah after he got stuck in mud while headed for a stage victory.
On the fifth stage yesterday, another somewhat wet run in the sand dunes near Fiambala, both Hummers were flying and Gordon finished just one minute behind Krzysztof Holowczyc, who won the stage in a Monster Energy X-raid Mini. Gordon's strong finish allowed him to gain three minutes on Stéphane Peterhansel, the current leader. However, Gordon is 13 minutes in arrears, in fourth place overall behind three Minis and seven minutes ahead of Giniel deVilliers in a Toyota HiLux.
Al-Attiyah lost about 20 minutes on the stage as he bottomed out badly near the finish, bending part of the frame, causing a spare tire to rub against a coolant hose, which then broke allowing the engine to overheat. Al-Attiyah's woes have caused him to drop to eighth overall, 51 minutes behind the leader. It'll be almost impossible for him to win, but he will be able to assist Gordon in the remaining half of the rally, just as Gordon has assisted him through the first four stages.
Gordon's Speed Energy team has been without one of its supports trucks carrying spare parts as it was stuck in customs in Buenos Aires. It was released yesterday and is being driven non-stop to catch up with the rally at Copiapo, where the event will be based for the next three nights.
Tomorrow, Saturday the stage covers 358 miles as it loops out from, and back to, the bivouac in the middle of sand dunes in the Atacama Desert. It's known as the driest desert in the world but suffered some damage last July when it received four year's worth of rain in one day. Sunday marks the rest day at the half way point. Next week, weather willing, the challenging rally moves north through the deserts of Chile into Peru.
The daily coverage on NBC Sports Network has been quite good with Jon Beekhuis, who normally covers Indycar Racing, doing the commentary. The daily summary is shown at 1.30am ET (10.30pm PT) each night and repeated each afternoon the next day at varying times. If you would like to keep track of this epic rally in real time, check out the . You can also see what's happening on the blog on or that of , his tire sponsor.