CHILECITO, Argentina (AFP) – The Dakar Rally was in mourning on Tuesday as Polish motorcyclist Michal Hernik died during the third stage from San Juan to Chilecito.
Hernik, 39, was found dead a few hundred metres from the track after a helicopter had been sent out to look for him when he failed to turn up at the finish and his tracker stopped sending a signal.
His was the fifth death since the rally was moved to South America over security concerns in the Sahara desert and the 24th overall since the race was created in 1979.
Before that, Orlando Terranova had maintained the Mini team’s winning streak by claiming his second stage win to move third overall in the auto standings led by teammate Nasser Al-Attiyah.
In the motorbike section, Austria’s Matthias Walkner, was a surprise winner of his first Dakar stage, ahead of KTM teammate and reigning champion Marc Coma and overall race leader Joan Barreda Bort of Spain.
After crashing at the end of the special on Monday, Terranova bounced back on his home soil producing a strong effort in the second part of the special during the 542km stage.
Al-Attiyah, the 2011 champion and winner of Monday’s stage, finished fifth in Tuesday’s stage which included 284km of specials.
South Africa’s Giniel de Villiers, picked up his third podium finish in three days, ahead of another Toyota driven by Saudi Arabia’s Alrahji Zayed, to stay second overall.
Terranova pulled back almost two minutes on Toyota’s de Villiers, the 2009 winner, and more than four minutes on Qatari Al-Attiyah in the overall standings.
Spaniard Carlos Sainz, winner in 2010, finished fourth at 4min 6sec to move up to fourth overall, while fellow Peugeot veteran Stephane Peterhansel, finished seventh, nine minutes off the pace, to sit 16th overall at 1hr 12min.
Before learning about Hernik’s death, Walkner revealed that he had found the course challenging.
“I made some little mistakes because it was a little bit dangerous today with many stones and it forced you over the limit, but overall it was quite good,” said Walkner.
“It’s my first rally and I hope I can enjoy it.”
Overall Honda’s Barreda Bort leads ahead of Portuguese teammate Paulo Goncalves and Walkner. Coma sits fourth at 10min 50sec.
“It was really dangerous because we were on river beds with a lot of stones and broken up tracks all day,” said Barreda Bort.
“Now we go to Chile and there will be different stages and a different feeling so we will see there.”
As yet, organisers have been unable to determine Hernik’s cause of death but he was found without his helmet, while his KTM bike showed no signs of having been in a crash.
Some 34 vehicles failed to start on Tuesday after falling victim to Monday’s longest stage, among them the 4×4 of French duo Catherine Houles and Sandrine Ridet, the only 100 percent female team in the event.
However for Japanese veteran Sugawara Yoshimasa, 73, the race continues as he looks to continue his 33rd Dakar adventure in Wednesday’s fourth stage from Chilecito in Argentina to Copiapo in Chile.