SMARA, Western Sahara - The Mitsubishi Motors Repsol ATS Studios Team driver Luc Alphand completed the last special stage of the 2005 Dakar Rally in Morocco in fifth position in Smara today (Tuesday 4th January).
Frenchman Alphand and co-driver Gilles Picard moved up to hold third overall at the Smara bivouac. "I am quite happy with the way everything is working so far," said Alphand. "The pace at the front is really high, maybe on a par with a Baja race, and I am happy to be among the leaders. It is a little frightening for the mechanics, but I still feel sure that reliability and a good team strategy will be the key.
After a 240 kms liaison section from Agadir to Goulimine, the 381 kms stage finished north of the blustery bivouac at the Moroccan border town. American Robby Gordon lost the outright lead of the event to stage winner Colin McRae, while Alphand’s team mate Stéphane Peterhansel and co-driver Jean-Paul Cottret lost valuable time with a series of flat tyres in their Mitsubishi Pajero/Montero Evolution and slipped down the early leaderboard.
"It was not a big difference this morning, but there is a long way to go," said Peterhansel. Yesterday Colin McRae had a flat tyre early on and we were forced to run first on the road, because there were no bikes. Today we started behind Robby Gordon. Last time we came here we had flat tyres on the Rally of Morocco, but it was 20 degrees C cooler this time. I did not expect any problems with tyres, but we had flat tyres again today."
Japan’s Hiroshi Masuoka and German co-driver Andreas Schulz began today’s stage in 14th overall, but were badly delayed with transmission problems in the third Mitsubishi Pajero/Montero Evolution. "There was a rock hidden in the grass about eight kilometers into the stage into Agadir and we did not see it," said Masuoka.
"It was unlucky and we stopped to change it. A BMW passed us and we had to stop with a windscreen wiper problem. There was no water left in the bottle. We knew it was going to be dusty today and we decided not to push and make sure we had no problems, because we know that we can push on the open desert sections later in the week." But the Japanese driver lost a lot of time with transmission problems today.
German lady driver Andrea Mayer tackled her longest stage so far with new French co-driver Jean-Michel Polato. She began the day in 17th overall.
"I am still trying to find a nice rhythm," said Mayer. "I tackled my first Dakar in a car with Francois Borsotto, so speaking French in the car is not a problem for me. We now have a good system. My plan is to wait for the longest stages, because I do not have the power of the Evolutions, so my best chance for a top stage result is on the longer, more difficult stages."
Spaniard Joan Roma is making his debut with the Mitsubishi team. "I am pleasantly surprised with my position so far," said Roma. "I started slowly yesterday and am growing in confidence. I have found a good rhythm, which keeps me in contention without taking any risks. I knew today’s stage from old Dakars on a bike and the Morocco Rally and it was important that I slowed down at the start and did not risk flat tyres or damage to the car."
Tomorrow 5th January (Wednesday) competitors cross the border into the Islamic Republic of Mauritania and tackle the first special stage in the Mauritanian wasterlands en route to the overnight halt in Zouerat. Of the 622 kms in the road book, 492 kms will be competitive with a mixture of high-speed piste and the onset of the first dune crossings between the first and third passage controls.
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