Arras-Madrid-Dakar: Start of rally report

Arras (Northern France): After months of meticulous planning the 24th Total Arras-Madrid-Dakar Rally finally got underway on Friday evening from the 'Place des Heros' in the northern French town of Arras. Ahead lies 17 days of some of the ...

Arras (Northern France): After months of meticulous planning the 24th Total Arras-Madrid-Dakar Rally finally got underway on Friday evening from the 'Place des Heros' in the northern French town of Arras. Ahead lies 17 days of some of the world's most arduous motorsport for a capacity entry of 167 bikes, 117 cars, 34 trucks and 107 assistance vehicles from 34 countries.

The opening 465-kms liaison section took the entire Dakar caravan south through France to an overnight halt at Chateauroux, prior to the first competitive section south of the town on Saturday at Saint Maurice La Souterraine. The remainder of Saturday will be spent passing through France en route to the second overnight halt at Narbonne, near Perpignan, close to the border with Spain.

A fervently patriotic crowd had gathered over the previous two days to witness the formalities of scrutineering and documentation at Artois Expo in the outskirts of the town and to witness the attendance of French rock legend Johnny Hallyday - taking part in his first Dakar with a Nissan X-Trail. But the crowds reappeared, despite the atrocious winter weather, to witness last year's champion Fabrizio Meoni leading the caravan over the start ramp at 20.00 (local time) on his powerful factory KTM 950cc twin-cylinder. With the absence of the BMW enduro team this year, the Bikes category could so easily have lost some flavour, but KTM's decision to scrap team orders has paved the way for one of the most exciting battles in the history of bike racing on the Dakar. Satellite teams from France, Germany and Spain will face Meoni and team mate Giovanni Sala on their factory 'twins', as the leading runners in a bumper 170-bike entry. Sweden's PG Lundmark offers BMW its only realistic hope on a privately-run 'twin'.

The Cars category is also likely to be one of the closest in recent times, with defending champion and leading seed Jutta Kleinschmidt freely admitting that she expects this to be a 'very open race'. Mitsubishi has taken advantage of the new regulations to develop an Evolution of the Pajero in the Super Production category. The cars have more torque, better aerodynamics and improved handling and team mate Hiroshi Masuoka is already feeling confident.

Mitsubishi's fate may well be in the hands of the Schlesser-Renault operation's gamble to run diesel engines in a pair of Kangoos for defending World Cross-Country champion Jean-Louis Schlesser and Belgian team mate Stephane Henrard. The cars deliver more torque and are lighter, but have less power than team mate Servia's petrol-engined derivative. 'We face our biggest test,' admits Schlesser. 'It would be fantastic to win the Dakar with a diesel engine for the first time.'

Both Ford and Nissan are the unknown quantities. Nissan has developed a pair of powerful new Pick-Ups for Gregoire de Mevius and last year's T1 winner Stephane Peterhansel, but the cars (sourced in South Africa) are relatively underdeveloped for severe desert conditions and, despite promising test sessions and more power than their predecessor, the Terrano, the team remains cautious about its chances of success. Team manager Andre Dessoude admits that a podium finish and stage victories would be a major feat, while Thierry de Lavergne offers the bonus of a Production category win in a Terrano, against the likes of Toyota, Mitsubishi and the Groine-developed Mercedes led by Jean-Pierre Strugo.

Ford, too, has been developing the Ranger for former WRC driver Bruno Saby. The Grenoble man is confident that it is a much improved all-round package to the car that he and Phillipe Wambergue struggled with in 2001, but again it is a relatively unknown quantity. Time will tell.

All in all it promises to be one of the closest Dakars to call in recent years.

-tso-

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Series DAKAR
Drivers Jean-Louis Schlesser , Stéphane Henrard , Jutta Kleinschmidt , Hiroshi Masuoka , Stéphane Peterhansel , Thierry de Lavergne , Fabrizio Meoni , Giovanni Sala , Gregoire de Mevius , Bruno Saby