(Adds quotes, Alonso’s position)
Jan 7 (Reuters) - Two-times champion Carlos Sainz seized the lead of the Dakar Rally on Tuesday after winning the third stage looping around the planned mega-city of Neom in the Saudi Arabian desert.
The Spaniard, driving a Mini buggy, led Toyota’s defending champion Nasser al Attiyah of Qatar by four minutes and 55 seconds after the 427km loop that extended close to the Jordanian border.
“We spent a lot of time and a lot of kilometres pushing hard, but you never know - anything can happen any day. The navigation is also tricky, but so far, so good,” said Sainz.
Overnight leader Orlando Terranova dropped to third, eight minutes off the pace, after the Argentine completed the stage nearly 13 minutes slower than Sainz.
Three different drivers have now won the opening stages of the first Dakar to be held in the Middle East after more than a decade in South America.
The stage win was a career 33rd for Sainz, a double world rally champion who is also father of the McLaren Formula One driver with the same name.
Fernando Alonso, the first Formula One world champion to compete in the Dakar, came back strongly from a difficult Monday when he smashed a wheel and suspension and lost more than two and a half hours.
The Spaniard was fifth fastest in the stage but still two hours and 40 minutes behind Sainz and 32nd in the overall classification.
“Hopefully I can take advantage of the good starting position tomorrow or in the next few days to try something else and be among the first three or hopefully win a stage, which would be magical,” he said.
Khalid al Qassimi of the United Arab Emirates, seventh overall on Monday night, ended his involvement in the rally after crashing and rolling his privately-entered Peugeot.
In the motorcycle category, American Ricky Brabec won the stage on his Honda and took over the lead from Britain’s Sam Sunderland.
Monday’s stage winner Ross Branch injured his shoulder in a crash at the 88km mark that cost the Botswana-born rider more than an hour.
“I took a bend a little too wide and there was a rock which I hit with my back wheel. It threw me off the bike and I’m feeling a little battered, but that’s just the race, I suppose,” he said.
Yamaha’s Adrien van Beveren fractured his collarbone in another crash and was taken to hospital by helicopter.
Australia’s defending champion Toby Price lost his way and finished the stage fifth.
The rally, held entirely inside Saudi Arabia, ends in Qiddiya on Jan. 17. (Writing by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Pritha Sarkar and Toby Davis)