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Red Bull KTM rider Sam Sunderland on Monday completed a redesigned Stage 7 of the Dakar Rally to finish third behind stage leader Ricky Brabec of the USA and Portugal’s Paulo Goncalves just 4.43 minutes off the lead time. The KTM factory rider now has an overall lead in the rally of 17 minutes 45 seconds. The timed special was just 161 km and mostly in sand.

There has now been a different winner of every stage and the top ten riders are changing frequently. It is impossible to speculate what might happen in the remaining days as riders head east to Buenos Aires for the checkered flag on Saturday.

Sam Sunderland’s two factory teammates, Matthias Walkner of Austria and Spanish rider Laia Sanz safely rode to the end of the timed special on their KTM 450 RALLY bikes. Walkner was seventh, just under 10 minutes off the lead, and Sanz was in 23rd place 21.58 minutes behind. Walkner is now fifth overall with a deficit of 34.17 minutes and Sanz remains the leading woman contestant at 25th overall. She has pledged to keep fighting and is hope for a top 15 position.

Sunderland had another very solid and wisely cautious day as he works on his goal to see the finish in Buenos Aires on Saturday. He lost a few minutes just 38 km into the special when he found himself off the track in the dunes but at the end of the day he was able to further build on his leading overall time. “It was a lot harder a stage than we were expecting – there was a lot of navigation. I lost some time today because it was a sandy stage and the guys from the back can see the tracks cleanly. I’m really happy with everything on the bike. It’s the first stage of the marathon day and the tyres are good so we’ll just keep ticking along.”

Teammate Walkner also sacrificed a little time at the beginning of the special but managed to recover well and by the end of the stage was even narrow the gap on the leading overall time. “I wanted to have a good position for tomorrow and I’m pleased it has worked out like this. It was a short stage, but tricky with rough terrain and lots of navigation. We’re set for more difficult navigation this week so the goal is to stay in a good position just off the front. Avoiding mistakes will be the key.”

There was another strong performance from 31-year old Australian KTM rider, outsider Todd Smith, who has been steadily improving every day and was an excellent seventh in the Stage 7.

Torrential rain shortened Stage 5 and resulted in the complete cancelation of Saturday’s Stage 6, which was followed by the scheduled rest day in the Bolivian capital of La Paz. As the rally continued to be hampered by rain, race directors on Sunday redesigned Monday’s stage to combine elements of both Stage 6 and 7. The timed special was wedged in the middle of two liaison sections of 400 km and 240 km each as they turned south to travel from La Paz to Uyuni, the location of the world’s largest salt flats, situated close to Bolivia’s border with neighboring Chile.

Stage 7 was also the first half of the marathon stage, where teams are not allowed to provide riders with any support overnight. In this stage and through to the end of Stage 8 it was important for them to take special care of their machinery and tires to ensure they were intact for the entire two days ride.

The Dakar will leave the Altplano, Bolivia’s high altitude plateau on Tuesday as riders travel from Uyuni to Salta in Argentina. While the Dakar rally has been to the region before, race direction has promised they will travel over new territory, with multiple rivers to ford and a spectacular canyon area to reach their destination.

UPDATE: An overflowed river on today’s Stage 8 course has caused to stop the special test at CP1 (PK 174) for all categories. Bikes, quads and cars will continue the liaison to reach the DSSb (PK 246,37) and will continue to race as initially planned.

Results Stage 7 Dakar 2017 (first half marathon stage)
La Paz – Uyuni: originally 322 km timed, 622 km total
1. Ricky Brabec (USA), Honda, 2:02:05 h
2. Paulo Goncalves (POR), Honda, +1:44 min
3. Sam Sunderland (GBR), KTM, +4:43
4. Joan Barreda (ESP), Honda, +6:51
5. Michael Metge (FRA), Honda, +8:21
Other KTM
6. Todd Smith (AUS), KTM, +9:39
7. Matthias Walkner (AUT), KTM, +9:59
23. Laia Sanz (ESP), KTM, +21:58

Standings Dakar 2017 after 7 of 12 stages
1. Sunderland, 17:28.53 h
2. Pablo Quintanilla (CHL), Husqvarna, +17:45 min
3. Adrien Van Beveren (FRA), Yamaha, +22:16
4. Gerard Farres Guell (ESP), KTM, +28:36
5. Walkner, +34:17 (5 min penalty)
Other KTM
25. Sanz, +2:25:30 h