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The Australian/Swedish Isuzu Rally Team is looking forward to a day of rest after seven days of hard racing in the 2009 Dakar Rally, being run in South America.

Australia’s Bruce Garland and Harry Suzuki (Garland MotorSports) and their Isuzu D-Max ute had a trouble-free day to finish the shortened seventh stage as 19th fastest, which puts them in 18th place outright.

In contrast, after two days of major drama, their Swedish teammates, Pelle Wallentheim and Olle Ohlsson (Tubus Racing), had more problems. This time it was the transfer case which led to them being stuck in low range for most of the stage. They had started the stage as car 32 but finished as 49th fastest. Overall, though, they have improved another few places and are now 54th outright, but it’s not as good as they were hoping for after such an impressive drive yesterday.

Heavy overnight rain churned up the track, making conditions muddy and treacherous. It forced organisers to shorten the stage by nearly half because the tracks were so badly damaged. Originally, the competitive stage was to have been 419km of a total distance of 816km, but the detour reduced the special stage to 243km.

But that was only for the bikes and cars who ran the shortened route which took them from the Argentinean side of the Andes Mountains to Valparaiso on the coast of Chile. Organisers banned the truck class from the stage altogether, sending them direct to Valparaiso by public roads.

“I’m looking forward to a bit of a rest,” says Garland, calling in after a shower at the end of yet another long day.

“We’re all planning to have a bit of a sleep-in, but then we have work to do on the cars, so it won’t be much of a rest. But at least it’s a break from the driving. It’s a bloody tough event.”

The road was quite fast despite the mud, but narrow and full of potholes. One of the leading drivers described the combination of rain and the fine fesh-fesh sand as like driving on ice, but Garland was not worried by the conditions.

“There was a bit of mud, but not enough for our liking. We’ve got great mud tyres from Bridgestone and they coped with the conditions really well. There were lots of people getting stuck but we were just flying past them.

“Basically it was like driving the Finke [Desert Race, in Central Australia] in the wet, but a bit rougher. It was pretty easy early on and then a bit harder in the mud, but not much.

“We’re just trying to keep out of trouble because we’re really only half-way through this. There’s a few in front of us who I reckon won’t make it because they’re over-driving and that will soon start to cause problems for them mechanically.

“I’m aiming for a finish, not a new land speed record every day and my approach is working. The car is running like a dream. We’ve certainly had no overheating problems as yet. We had them in Dubai and we re-thought everything and re-worked everything and so far, so good.”

Yet again, Garland says, the start and finish of the day’s stage was witnessed by huge crowds, and despite the increasing remoteness of the route, there are still plenty of spectators prepared to make the pilgrimage.

“I reckon this must be the most watched sporting event in the world right now. We came to one little group of corners and there was a crowd like you would get at the Melbourne Cricket Ground all standing there. It was huge. And that was just one example. I don’t think the Pope gets as big a crowd as we are!”

Originally known as the Paris-Dakar, the Dakar Rally has been staged in Africa since 1978, but last year’s event was cancelled on the eve of the start after terrorists killed seven people and made direct threats to the rally, hence the move. The new South American event covers 9500km from Buenos Aires to Chile and back, finishing on January 17.

As of today, VW holds down the top three spots in field, with former dual world rally champion, Carlos Sainz, in the lead, ahead of Giniel de Villiers and Mark Miller.

Nine-time Dakar winner, and defending champion, Stéphane Peterhansel, who had been running as high as fourth in the event so far, had to put out a fire in the engine of his Mitsubishi after 57km of today’s stage. He was able to resume briefly before his engine broke down completely, and looks to have pulled out of the battle.

The crews are now enjoying the rest day ahead of the eighth stage on Sunday which is a 652km run from Valparaiso to La Serena. From there, it is back up into the Andes and on to the Atacama Desert as the crews return to the finishing line in Buenos Aires next weekend.

COMPARISON FROM DAY ONE: Garland/Suzuki 51st O/R; Wallentheim/Ohlsson 67th
AS OF DAY SEVEN: Garland/Suzuki 18th; Wallentheim/Ohlsson 54th.

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