Arras-Madrid-Dakar: Stages one and two report

Narbonne (Southern France): The Dakar caravan arrived in the southern French town of Narbonne late on Saturday evening at the end of the second day of this year's 24th Total Arras-Madrid-Dakar Rally. A gruelling liaison section along the wintry ...

Narbonne (Southern France): The Dakar caravan arrived in the southern French town of Narbonne late on Saturday evening at the end of the second day of this year's 24th Total Arras-Madrid-Dakar Rally. A gruelling liaison section along the wintry roads of Central France was interrupted by a mere six kilometres of competitive action at the Croisiere Activity Park in La Souterraine and a brief rest beforehand at Chateauroux.

The weather dictated a classic setting for scrambling-type tactics and Pierro Quinonero slithered through the quagmire and into a surprise lead of the Bikes section, the Frenchman edging into a slender lead over the KTM-mounted duo of Finland's Kari Tianen and Spain's Joan Roma. Reverse seeding ensured that the track was rutted and potholed by the time the leading runners attempted the stage. Frenchman Cyril Despres, winner of the recent UAE Desert Challenge, was fourth and Celso Gorrara, Jean Brucy and Touratech team front-runner Francois Flick completed the top seven.

Defending champion Fabrizio Meoni held 16th place on the new LC8 'twin'. 'This race is 80% down to me and 20% down to my bike, said Meoni. 'On the tarmac, the bike runs strong, but on the special stage today it was a struggle in the rain and the mud.' Francois Flick had enjoyed the day's action : "Frankly, this is normal. All the public encouraged me and this gave me a boost. When you live in this region like me, where it often rains, running in the mud comes as second nature. I have really taken a giant step. The Dakar is the best race.'

In the Cars category, both Nissan and Mitsubishi benefitted from four-wheel drive, particularly on the muddy uphill sections, where Jean-Louis Schlesser took to corner-cutting tactics to avoid the worst of the mud in the two-wheel drive Kangoo. Last year's T1 winner Stephane Peterhansel looked set for his first stage win in the new Nissan Pick-Up, but he was overhauled by the Spaniards Gil Fernando and Miguel Prieto, the former taking a 26 second lead into the run south to Narbonne.

Japan's Kenjiro Shinozuka caught Bruno Saby's Ford Ranger on the way to the fourth fastest time in his Pajero, with team mates Carlos Sousa, Hiroshi Masuoka and Jean-Pierre Fontenay completing the top seven. Defending Dakar champion Jutta Kleinschmidt ran first on the road and was eighth through the stage, a mere 25 seconds behind the leader. Schlesser languished in 68th place, with team mate Stephane Henrard dropping an extra four minutes when he was forced to place pieces of wood under the wheels to free the stricken Kangoo from its muddy grave.

"I have never seen mud like that,' admitted Schlesser, the defending World Champion. 'It was really not for us. I used tyres with deep grooves, but the car was still uncontrollable.'

Former FIA World Group N champion Gregoire de Mevius finished the stage in ninth place: 'It was like a holiday on ice. I caught Schlesser, but did not lose too much time behind because he was at the head of the field.' Backmarkers in the Cars section suffered worst as the stage deteriorated and the decision was taken to cancel the test for the Trucks category.

Driving wind and torrential rain had greeted the Dakar caravan to the muddy off-road track at La Souterraine, where a large crowd of onlookers had gathered to brave the winter elements, the stage located a chilly 370 metres above sea level. Many of the backmarkers hadn't left Arras until well after midnight. Appalling weather conditions and a long run through Central France meant that a few hours' much-needed rest had been a bonus.

The leading British entrant in the Dakar is Michael Exstance, seeded inside the top 20 courtesy of his victory in the Over-40s European Enduro Championship. 'I will ride my own race. If I am passed by someone who is on my pace, then I will tag along behind them until I gain more experience and confidence,' said the Husaberg rider, who finished the opening stage in 66th place.

The previous evening French rock legend Johnny Hallyday had been given a rousing reception as he left the start ramp in Arras to begin his first Dakar with Rene Metge in a Nissan X-Trail. Nissan Team Dessoude had thrown a reception in the Hotel Mercure, near the start area, and Hallyday's appearance attracted a sizeable gathering of autograph hunters to the hotel entrance and lobby area. Estimates put the crowd at the start ramp in the region of 12,000.

On Sunday, competitors head into a 35 kms special stage at Chateau Lastours, near Perpignan, before beginning the tiring liaison section across the Spanish border and on to Madrid. The real competitive stage action will begin after New Year's Eve celebrations in Rabat in two days' time.

-tso-

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Series DAKAR