Sainz, who led the opening stage of the event, suffered a frustrating third day of action by ending it 33m34s off overall leader and X-Raid Mini team-mate Stephane Peterhansel.
Despite briefly leading the 406km Wadi Ad-Dawasir third stage, Sainz and co-driver Lucas Cruz were held up by a navigation problem 156km into the special stage, which cost around half an hour, before having frustrations compounded by a puncture.
An irritated Sainz felt his day had been strong up to the navigation issue and accepts the time deficit is a huge blow to his victory hopes.
“It was a quite complicated day,” he said. “It was a pity because we were doing well. But you need to put together all the dots so that you can do a good stage. The problem today was the navigation.
“We were stuck on a point. We validated first way point. We thought we had lost other way points and we were kind of confused also because we were thinking to be on another way point of the roadbook. The reality is that the situation was not so clear.”
Co-driver Cruz explained that they had to make a U-turn to double back on themselves: “We were on track and there was a change of course, we turned a little to the left with such bad luck that we missed the next point we had to validate.
“From that point on I didn't understand anything, I didn't know where I was, so we started to follow our lines to try to re-locate ourselves. And when we realized what the error was, we went back, validated the previous point and continued.”
After Tuesday’s stage, three-time Dakar winner Sainz has dropped down to fourth place overall and concedes he may need problems to hit those ahead of him to get back into the victory hunt this year, despite still having nine stages to go.
“Looking at the race, recovering half an hour is quite complicated,” he added. “From our side, [we must get our] head down and go. As for the strategy, the race is still long and we have to see what happens to the others, because otherwise you cannot recover such an important gap.
“But the Dakar is like this, everything can happen till the last kilometre. Now we can only go ahead and see.”
Additional reporting by Sergio Lillo