ATAR, Mauritania - The Mitsubishi Motors Repsol ATS Studios Team will restart the Dakar Rally in a commanding position on Monday, but the first week of African action has been some of the most dramatic in the 26-year history of the world’s most famous off-road race.
Frenchman Stéphane Peterhansel and Jean-Paul Cottret began the event in cautious fashion, by staying in contention through the early Moroccan stage without inflicting damage to their Mitsubishi Pajero/Montero Evolution.
Peterhansel drove for three days suffering the effects of influenza, but he maintained his position in the top 10, despite three flat tyres on the run through Morocco. He hit the front as the event crossed into Mauritania and extended his advantage to over 21 minutes as teams left Tichit for the road liaison to Tidjikja. On the final stage before the Atar rest day, the defending champion set the second fastest time to hold a 20m 01s advantage over his team mate Luc Alphand. He finished the stage with a minor engine problem and the mechanics worked on the rest day to replace a broken piston in Stéphane’s car.
"We started in Morocco with wind and sandstorms and, one week later, we still have wind and sandstorms," said Peterhansel. "We finished the stage into Atar very slowly, but the team have worked on the car and I feel confident that everything will be okay. I am first, Luc is second and we have a 40-minute advantage over Jutta. There are some long stages coming, but at the moment it is not necessary for me to attack. I will drive carefully and wait to see what happens with the other drivers."
Frenchman Alphand and co-driver Gilles Picard are tackling their first event together with the Mitsubishi Motors Team. The former world skiing champion finished fourth on the event in 2004 and has stayed out of trouble this year to consistently move up the leaderboard to second position. He set the overall fastest time on the run into Atar.
"We will do our best next week, not attack too much and keep the car in good condition," said Picard. "I have never seen an easy Paris-Dakar. We were surprised by the incredible camel grass stage into Tichit. It was too long and the weather has been strange. There are a lot of difficult stage to go. Tomorrow’s stage is difficult and the organizers tell me that the Atar to Kiffa stage will be the worst."
Hiroshi Masuoka and German co-driver Andreas Schulz have endured a fraught first week of the Dakar, as both bid to win the event for the third time. Masuoka was well-placed until he damaged a wishbone on the final Moroccan stage and lost over three hours.
He slipped to 124th position, but a second fastest time on the subsequent stage lifted him back to 42nd and he re-entered the top 10 on the stage into Tichit. But three punctures gave the crew only the fifth fastest time into Atar and they will restart on Monday morning in sixth place overall.
"I know that my role for the second week will be to work for the team," said Masuoka. "I must stay behind the top two cars. If they go fast, then we will go fast and I still feel that we can reach third place."
Germany’s Andrea Mayer and French co-driver Jean-Michel Polato have suffered their fair share of problems. A couple of navigational errors have cost them time and they stopped for 10 minutes to assist team mate Joan Roma on the run into Atar.
They were baulked by the dust of slower cars in Morocco, but Mayer has hovered inside the top 20 for several days. Stopping to assist Roma means that she holds 14th place at the Atar rest day.
Spaniard Joan ’Nani’ Roma and co-driver Henri Magne completed the stage into Atar in 63rd position, after being forced to wait for the assistance truck to free them from a sand dune. They lost four hours in the incident and slipped to eighth position. This was Roma’s first major set-back after a consistent run of stage performances, which had lifted him to sixth place in Tidjikja.
"My relationship with Henri has been excellent since the start," said Roma. "We will try and avoid big sand holes and dunes next week. We have to stay in the race and reach Dakar. That is the goal at this point."
"Yesterday, before we got stuck, we actually caught and passed Carlos Sousa," added co-driver Magne. "To be on that level for his first Dakar is a great performance for Nani."
"The plan is to take each day carefully and get through the Bamako to Kayes section without any problems," said MMSP’s Team Director Dominique Serieys. "Atar-Atar will not be easy and Atar-Kiffa will be the worst one according to Patrick Zaniroli. We must take care with the dune crossings and the sand storm conditions and then be careful with the trees and the navigation on the Kiffa to Bamako stage.
"If we reach Kayes in the same position, then maybe I can say that we are on target to reach our goal in Dakar. The car and the team are in a good shape. I am sure that the drivers have not really pushed yet. Now I feel that we are controlling our colleagues at Volkswagen. Jutta is our nearest rival and she is driving alone. I know that we can push much harder if we have to.
"Both Nani and Andrea are learning each day. Their target is to finish the race. Nani has three years to become established as a serious driver in this race. If we can give him some Baja races and maybe 6,000 kms behind the wheel I feel sure that he will be ready to challenge at the top level."
Tomorrow (Monday) features a loop stage around Atar. After an eight kilometer liaison, teams head into a 483 kms special, before returning to the bivouac.
The stage is one of the most difficult on the Dakar Rally and takes in the Thaga Pass and the notorious El Beyed Erg. The organizers have pledged around 40 kms of non-stop dunes and the crossing of the Sebkhet Chemcham chott.
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