French veteran Stephane Peterhansel was one stage away from a record-extending 14th Dakar triumph on Thursday after ending the penultimate day in Saudi Arabia with a 15-minute lead over Qatar's Nasser Al-Attiyah.
Toyota's Al-Attiyah, who had said on Wednesday that the event would be decided on the shortened 464-km stage from AlUla to Yanbu, won the day but Peterhansel kept him in check with the second-fastest time.
"There’s only one day to go. It’s time to cross fingers and hope that we will be in first place at the end," said Peterhansel, whose record 13 previous wins came on both motorcycles and in cars.
Friday's final 200km stage to Jeddah features chains of dunes before reaching the shores of the Red Sea but offers less scope for Al-Attiyah to close the gap unless his ever-consistent rival hits problems.
"It’s exactly like last year, we are really struggling with the tires," said the Qatari, a triple Dakar winner, after clawing back a minute and 56 seconds from Peterhansel to secure his sixth stage win of the event.
"I hope for next year (we are) coming with good rules for everybody.
"There’s still one day left, but this time we have really had a lot of punctures. I’ve had more than 16 tires punctured. I am sure that 16 tires by one minute and a half (for each change) is a lot."
In the motorcycle category, Britain's Sam Sunderland won the stage for KTM to move up to second overall, four minutes and 12 seconds behind Honda's Argentine Kevin Benavides.
"I knew that today was one of my last chances to try to win and I gave my all," said Sunderland. "I didn't quite manage to take enough time, but I'm happy with my effort. We still have one day to go and many things can happen on one stage."