(Reuters) – Toyota’s defending champion Nasser Al-Attiyah retained a comfortable lead of more than an hour after the Dakar Rally’s seventh stage in Saudi Arabia on Saturday on another tough day for rivals Audi.

The Qatari, who played it safe in the first part of a marathon stage, had earlier apologised for an outburst on social media during the week about a rule change he feared would favour Audi.

The German marque’s hopes of a first Dakar win for an electrically-powered car evaporated for another year on Friday when leading challengers Stephane Peterhansel and Carlos Sainz both crashed in the desert dunes.

Sainz started on Saturday, but in 68th place and with a penalty of 28 hours and 45 minutes for failing to complete the sixth stage, while Peterhansel withdrew after co-driver Edouard Boulanger ended up in hospital.

Audi suffered a further setback when remaining contender Mattias Ekstroem, winner of last weekend’s prologue, stopped with mechanical problems and Sainz halted alongside to provide assistance.

The seventh stage from Riyadh to Al Duwadimi, featuring a 333km special stage and 861km in all, was won by Saudi Arabia’s Yazeed Al Rajhi for Overdrive Racing — his third career stage win and first of 2023.

Al-Attiyah now leads South African team mate Henk Lategan by an hour one minute and four seconds, a loss of just five minutes overall.

Before the fifth stage he had accused organisers of “killing the race early” with the decision to allow more power to cars using renewable energy.

“In the heat of the moment, I reacted harshly to the FIA’s EOT (Equivalence of Technology) decision,” he posted on Instagram after the sixth stage.

“I like to defend my title fairly and at the first instant the decision did not seem fair. I now understand the situation better, and would like to apologise for my earlier post.”

Only the cars and trucks were racing with organisers cancelling the stage for motorcycles due to the weather and rider fatigue. The bikes and quads instead took the road to Al Duwadimi.

American Skyler Howes leads the motorcycle classification for Husqvarna, one minute and 55 seconds clear of Australian Toby Price with Argentina’s Kevin Benavides third.

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Christian Radnedge)

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