Mitsubishi dominates overall classification as Dakar Rally heads into final week.
The Mitsubishi Motors Team is dominating the leader board in the 25th edition of the Telef?nica Dakar Rally, currently occupying the first, second, fourth, fifth and sixth places. Having crossed Spain, Tunisia and Libya, the teams reached Siwa in Egypt yesterday evening, and have enjoyed a well-earned rest day at the bivouac today.
Driving Mitsubishi Pajero Evolution / Montero Evolution cars, Frenchman St?phane Peterhansel and his Japanese team mate Hiroshi Masuoka have shared the honours so far, winning all but one of the special stages. After 11 stages, six-times Dakar bike winner Peterhansel has built up an advantage of 16m 32s over Masuoka, last year's winner.
Mitsubishi team mates Jean-Pierre Fontenay and "Miki" Biasion are lying fourth and fifth overall in their classic Mitsubishi Pajeros / Monteros, while Portugal's Carlos Sousa is in sixth position, at the wheel of a Mitsubishi L200 Strakar.
From the start, Masuoka and Peterhansel have been battling practically wheel-to-wheel, swapping fastest stage times on the run south through Tunisia and into Libya. Masuoka briefly held the overall lead at the end of the fifth stage, but then lost time, first due to a slight navigation problem, followed by no fewer than five flat tyres on the run into Zilla, when his tyres overheated and punctured on the hard volcanic rock.
Peterhansel's Mitsubishi Pajero Evolution / Montero Evolution has been the model of reliability and the Frenchman admitted to driving with a little in reserve from the start. "I will spend the rest day relaxing, taking it easy and sleeping", Peterhansel said. "I will also begin to think about the strategy for the last week. I like the desert, but this year's race is only desert. I prefer it when there are different kinds of stages, because if you are strong in the desert you are in a good position. If you prefer 'Black Africa' and you are quick in the bush and the forests, then you have a problem this year".
Masuoka remains in a determined and confident mood. "Today is the first day of rest of this race and I will spend the time thinking about how I am going to win", he said. "Sixteen minutes is a lot, but it is no problem. I have not given up. There is a long way to go. You only need to look what has happened in the past to know that it is not over until the very last kilometre has been completed".
Fontenay lost 45 minutes in the south of Tunisia, when he became bogged down in soft sand, but he finished in the top three during the last three stages in Libya. He and his co-driver, Gilles Picard, are content with their fourth place. "I think the Dakar has been very fast this year", Fontenay explained. "We had our small problem last week when I lost a lot of time in the sand, but we are into a nice rhythm now and I would like to think that a podium place is within my grasp".
Two-times former World Rally Champion "Miki" Biasion, from Italy, has been enjoying his first Dakar, driving a Mitsubishi Pajero / Montero. Determined to reach the finish in Sharm El Sheikh next Sunday, Biasion has been driving in a restrained fashion, but he lost time with a wheel rim problem in Libya and then more time due to a navigational error.
"Everyone seems to have one day when they have problems and that is what makes Dakar so special", said Biasion. "I will keep going as hard as I can. I have already had my problems and hope to have a good final week. When I started this race I thought that the pace would be slower than the WRC, but I was wrong. Everybody has been driving each day as if it was the last day of the race. Compared to the World Rally Championship, we have been driving to the same limit all of the time. You are so afraid to make a mistake on these long stages that you need maximum concentration. There are times when you can take a quick look around at the scenery, but you need to be focused".
Portugal's Carlos Sousa, driving a Mitsubishi L200 Strakar, started the week outside the top 10, climbing to as high as fifth overall on the run through Libya. He is currently sixth. "The car does not have the top speed of the Pajeros / Monteros, but I am well-placed and determined to reach the finish", said Sousa.
Mitsubishi privateers have also been enjoying considerable success. Spaniard Jos?-Luis Monterde is currently the highest-placed of all the privately entered drivers, placed 11th overall in his Ralliart-prepared Mitsubishi Pajero / Montero, behind four-times Dakar winner Ari Vatanen. "It has been a tough race, but we are in a strong position for the last six days", said the Spaniard.
Brazilian Klever Kolberg finished the 2002 Dakar Rally in eighth position overall and is currently leading the Total Trophy for Amateur drivers in his Mitsubishi Pajero / Montero. "From the start, we have suffered with the brakes, and our engine does not have the same power as some of our rivals", he explained. "When we approach the big dunes, sometimes we struggle to get over and have to go back and start again. It is frustrating for me, but I am happy to still be in this race".
Frenchman Jean-Fran?ois Guinot is well placed inside the top twenty, currently ranked 15th, driving a Mitsubishi Challenger GLX, while Portugal's Carlos Oliveira is 25th, 17 minutes behind his Ralliart team mate Andrea Mayer. "It has been a difficult rally", said Oliveira. "There are still six stages to go and anything can happen".
Germany's Mayer is enjoying her transition from two wheels to four, a Mitsubishi Pajero / Montero to be more exact. "It has been a really exciting two weeks in the car", she said. "We have had all kinds of problems, but now we are on the home straight and we are still going strong. We have had problems with the turbo, and I was worried that the engine was damaged. After that we had a differential problem and took the wrong route in the desert. But we have reached Siwa and that was our first goal".
After the rest day, the Dakar resumes tomorrow with a tricky loop stage around Siwa, during which the competitors will cross some of Egypt's tallest dunes. They will then head southeast towards Dakhla and then on to Luxor and Abu Rish, finishing in Sharm El Sheikh on Sunday January 19th.