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Michelin Riders Fill All Three Podium Places as Cyryl Despres Records Second Dakar Victory

Frenchman Cyril Despres, winner of the Dakar Rally in 2005, clinched his second Dakar success in three years with a controlled final stage performance around Lac Rose in Dakar on Sunday.

The Team Gauloises KTM rider, benefiting from crucial Michelin support, began the last 16km special 36m 09s ahead of Michelin-backed team mate David Casteu. But Despres rode cautiously over the potentially treacherous final kilometres to record the 56th fastest time and secure victory by the margin of 34m 19s. Casteu was sixth on the final special, which was won by Latvia's Janis Vinters.

"Even after my mechanical problems in Morocco I never gave up hope," said Despres. "I had no pressure and just rode as well as I could each day. I knew that it was a long shot to take the overall victory, because Marc Coma was riding so well. I have great respect for him, but the mistake was a big shock. To reach Dakar as the winner again is a fantastic feeling for me. It is a major boost for my confidence."

Michelin-backed American Chris Blais completed the podium line-up on his Red Bull Team KTM, as Michelin riders dominated the podium places. The leaderboard had been turned upside down on the penultimate long African stage between Kayes in Mali and Tambacounda in Sénégal, when long-term leader Marc Coma crashed his Team Repsol KTM after losing his way. The Spaniard's demise was the Frenchman's gain and the dramatic incident handed a comfortable lead to Despres.

"Not too long ago I was riding on the Dakar as an amateur with a trunk of spare parts and a handful of tires," said Casteu. "Now to finish second overall and cross the beach at Lac Rose in a podium position is a dream for me. It was a tough race, but I hope to be able to build on this superb result for the Gauloises KTM team."

Spaniard Isidre Esteve Pujol also crashed on the stage into Tambacounda, but managed to use parts from Coma's stricken bike to repair his KTM at the passage control. Despite gearbox problems earlier in the race and his accident, a troubled Esteve Pujol reached the finish of a dramatic Dakar Rally outing in 30th position.

In the competitive 450cc category, Honda Europe's Thierry Bethys benefited from Michelin support to finish third overall in the category behind Portugal's Helder Rodrigues and Corsican Michel Marchini. The Frenchman was also an excellent eighth in the overall classification.

The highlight of Bethys's race fortnight was the overall third fastest time on the stage into Tambacounda on his 450 Honda. Yamaha France rival David Frétigné received Michelin support, but crashed out of the rally in Atar.

Michelin's renowned Bib mousse made punctures a thing of the past on the punishing special stages through Portugal, Morocco, Mauritania, Mali and Sénégal, but there were still a number of major surprises on the overall leaderboard.

Coma's Team Repsol KTM colleagues Jordi Viladoms and Giovanni Sala both received support from the French tyre manufacturer, but crashed out of contention last week. Gearbox problems had delayed Dutch Team Gauloises KTM debutant Frans Verhoeven, but he too crashed on the stage into Kayes in Mali and retired from the race with two dislocated shoulders.

Victory on the 14th special stage between Tambacounda and Dakar and the second of his Dakar career fell to Brazilian Jean de Azevedo, as the leaders erred on the side of caution. Pole Jacek Czachor started the special in 101st position after his navigational delays into Tambacounda, but surged through the back markers on the special towards Dakar and set the second fastest time.

Latvia's Janis Vinters, Blais, Despres and Casteu followed in their wake, although Despres maintained an overall lead of 36m 09s over Casteu, with Blais retaining third overall.

The penultimate stage of the event was marred by the death of rider Eric Aubijoux. The 42-year-old was lying in 19th position and suffered heart failure near the end of the stage into Dakar. The Frenchman was riding in his sixth Dakar and finished 16th in 2001. He had completed the penultimate stage in 26th place.

Only 132 of the original 247 bikes and quads reached the finish at Lac Rose.

Positions after leg 15 - Dakar to Dakar

(Michelin-supported riders in bold)

1. Cyril Despres (F) KTM 690 Rally 51h 36m 53s

2. David Casteu (F) KTM 690 Rally 52h 11m 12s

3. Chris Blais (USA) KTM 660 Rally 52h 28m 59s

4. Pal-Anders Ullesvalseter (N) KTM 53h 14m 50s

5. Helder Rodrigues (P) Yamaha 54h 07m 34s

6. Janis Vinters (LAT) KTM 54h 21m 14s

7. Michel Marchini (F) Yamaha 54h 37m 20s

8. Thierry Bethys (F) Honda 450 CRF X 55h 03m 26s (3rd in 450cc class behind Rodrigues and Marchini)

9. Jaroslav Katrinak (SLQ) KTM 55h 17m 03s

10. Jacek Czachor (PL) KTM 56h 00m 57s

30. Isidre Esteve Pujol (E) KTM 61h 42m 25s

January 2007