A long, hard day of cautious driving – and a little bit of luck – has put the Australian Isuzu crew in 24th place outright on Day Five of the 2009 Dakar Rally (Argentina-Chile).

Sydney’s Bruce Garland and Harry Suzuki and their Isuzu D-Max (car class) left in 42nd place from the start at Neuquén and finished 18th on the 763km stage to San Rafaël, which included a competitive special stage of 506km.

The route, which ranged in altitude from 400m to 2300m above sea level, alternated between clearly visible tracks and long sections of off-road driving, as well as around 20km of sand dunes at the end, which caught out many competitors, including some of the front runners.

At time of writing, Swedish teammates Pelle Wallentheim and Olle Ohlsson were still to arrive at the overnight stop. They started from 139th in the morning, after an all-night effort by the team to repair the damage caused when they hit a grid in Stage Four. They were last marked in 74th at the 422km point and still travelling.

“That was one tough day,” says Garland.

“It took us about eight and a half hours, with the first 110 km taking two hours.

“The road was really bad and then you add in the truck factor. They’re starting the trucks and the cars together, combining their finishing times to determine starting order each day, so it’s cars and trucks out there together and they are really fast – plus they cut up the road really badly.

“You can’t drive slowly because there’s only a 30-second gap between each entry, but if you get caught behind something, you can get hit, so if it looks like there is a delay, we try to get off the road immediately to get around it. One of these trucks could go over a car or a bike in the dust and not even notice.”

Once through this section, the route opened up, with beautiful flowing roads and great views. It was an excellent spot for spectators and there are still plenty of them.

“It was all steppe-y plains with no trees, just wide open, and I reckon the whole of Argentina has come out to watch – where you might see a kangaroo or two when you are doing the Australian Safari, there are 100,000 Argentineans standing there, and if you get lost, they point you in the right direction!”

After several days of being further back in the field, Garland believes he and Suzuki are now tracking where they should be.

“If we can hold around this point, we should be able to make steady progress. When you’re further back, you end up constantly trying to pass people who really don’t know what they’re doing and you can get stuck for 80km trying to do it.

“The racing really starts now, but we’re taking it conservatively. The people who are overdriving are starting to have car problems. Our first goal is to finish, and our second goal is to finish ahead of South Africa’s Alfie Cox. We’re on a mission – we have to beat the South Africans at something!”

Argentina is hotter than Africa is at this time of year, and the heat, plus the difficult driving conditions – and, increasingly from now on, the altitude – are combining to make it what veterans are calling the toughest Dakar ever.

“I got quite dehydrated on Day Two when we were driving through the bulldust and then had to stop to fix a puncture, so I’m drinking about eight to 10 litres a day – and I only had two toilet stops today! You just need the water, and I’m trying to drink more than I think I need, because we’ve learned that being properly hydrated also helps with altitude sickness.”

Garland had minimal issues with the sand dunes in the final section of today’s stage but it was a different story for some of the leaders.

Dual world rally champion Carlos Sainz (VW) had been leading the event till today, but he made a mistake in the dunes (courtesy of a lack of power steering) and tore off the bonnet of his car. Nine-time Dakar winner Stéphane Peterhansel (Mitsubishi) had a similar problem with the rear hood of his car. Both were able to continue but it has affected their standings.

At the end of the stage, Sainz’ teammate Giniel De Villiers was first ahead of yet another VW pilot, Dieter Depping, with Robbie Gordon and his Hummer third. In outright terms, Sainz has dropped back to third, behind De Villiers with BMW’s Nasser Al Attiyah in the lead. Peterhansel has dropped from fourth to sixth.

Garland says the reality of just how tough this event is has hit all the competitors with the news that French motorcycle competitor Pascal Terry was found dead today after going missing during competition three days ago.

Day Six: San Rafaël to Mendoza

Total: 625km; 395km of competitive.

The sixth leg is characterised by lots of possible route choices. The drivers and their co-pilots will first encounter a 60km stretch of dunes. The second part of the day’s journey is then seemingly easier, but is tricky all the same – a wide ford will require all of the participants’ attention if they want to avoid taking an unexpected dip.

The stage heads through the northern Patagonian lakeland and then turns north to a finish south of Pareditas. A 154km liaison then takes crews into the overnight halt in Mendoza, with the volcanic peak of Tupungatito rising to 6550m in the background.

Mendoza stands 824m above sea level in a region famous for its wine industry and is a popular destination for tourists interested in climbing, skiing, rafting and hiking.

Garland and Wallentheim tested in this area before the event started, to tune the Isuzus to the higher altitudes they have to tackle, and to acclimatise themselves to the demands of climbing into the Andes.

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