Masuoka powers into the lead for Mitsubishi.
Stage victory rewards Japanese; five Mitsubishis in top 10
Mitsubishi Motors drivers continue to dominate the head of the 2003 Telef?nica Dakar Rally leaderboard, however Japan's Hiroshi Masuoka has now assumed the lead after setting fastest time in today's 285 kilometre stage from Tozeur to El Borma. The 42-year-old Pajero Evolution / Montero Evolution driver, co-driven by Germany's Andreas Shulz, holds a 55 second advantage over team-mate and former rally leader, St?phane Peterhansel. Mitsubishi Motors drivers now hold first, second, fifth and seventh in the overall standings as the crews arrived at the tiny El Borma sand-strip for a second night under the stars in near zero temperatures.
After a night camped on the runway at Tozeur last night, the leading car crews left the bivouac at 08:00 hrs (GMT+2 hrs) this morning en route to the start of the longest stage of the rally so far. Today's stage, run in warm and sunny 20 degree temperatures, represented the first of the "real" Dakar stages and started out on fast tracks with alternate stretches of stones and sand. Kilometre by kilometre the stage took the crews in to low dunes and sand drifts with fast and twisty sections and the first taste of off-road driving. In the middle of the stage the quick and undulating tracks included a number of jumps before navigation became trickier as the route snaked its way between hills with numerous parallel tracks and very few landmarks.
Hiroshi Masuoka came into his own, the Japanese driver - who won the event for Mitsubishi in 2002 - powering his Pajero Evolution / Montero Evolution over the rough and tricky terrain to take his second stage victory of the event. After a grueling drive, Masuoka catapulted himself up the leaderboard from third overall as the crews headed towards the overnight halt at El Borma, east of the Algerian border.
"Today I drove normally, nothing too hard", commented Masuoka. "We started seventh on the road and I passed five cars. In some places it was very fast and there were some small dunes and it was a little bumpy. It is just the beginning of the rally now so we must be patient".
St?phane Peterhansel, who led the rally from Castell?n, Spain, had nearly one and a half minutes in hand as the crews started today's stage, however the French six-time bike winner lost time to Masuoka, dropping him into second overall. To put the deficit into perspective however, Peterhansel and Masuoka were split by just two minutes and 20 seconds after more than two and a half hours and 285 kilometres of competitive and navigational off-road driving.
"We had a good stage but a couple of little mistakes, and I drove one section quite slowly", said Peterhansel. "When you start first car on the road you have the added risk of passing some of the bikes and running in their dust. I think it's easier to start further behind on stages like today".
Credit must also go to former Mitsubishi driver Kenjiro Shinozuka, the Japanese climbing from an overnight 11th to third overall in just one stage, underlining how fortunes can change on the Dakar and the value of a clean run. He now leads Nissan's assault as Giniel de Villiers, second overnight, slipped to sixth after finishing more than 17 minutes behind Masuoka on the stage. Gr?goire de Mevius has also moved up the leaderboard, the Belgian BMW X5 driver fourth on the stage and overall.
Former double World Rally Champion "Miki" Biasion steered his classic Pajero / Montero to the end of the stage in fifth position, the Italian, co-driven by Tiziano Siviero, also climbing one place up the leaderboard and into fifth overall.
Jean-Pierre Fontenay was fourth of the factory Mitsubishis, finishing eighth on the stage after suffering a flat tyre. He and fellow countryman Gilles Picard have however moved up the leaderboard into seventh, overhauling Carlos Sousa in the Mitsubishi L200 Strakar who has slipped to 10th after losing five minutes changing a tyre. "It was a nice stage but we had a flat and I stopped to change the wheel and lost some time", said the Portuguese.
Of the opposition, Frenchman Thierry Delavergne (Nissan), previously ninth, and Germany's Dieter Depping (Volkswagen), who had held 13th overall, both crashed, Depping all-but destroying his Tarek in the accident.
Mitsubishi privateers also ran well throughout the stage. Germany's Andrea Mayer completed the stage in 25th position, moving her up the leaderboard from an overnight 42nd to 27th in her diesel-power Pajero. Frenchman Jean-Fran?ois Guinot remained in 22nd position, while Portugal's Carlos Oliveira has climbed from 43rd to 26th.
One notable incident was a freak accident involving renowned television presenter G?rard Holtz. The Frenchman had to be transferred by helicopter to El Borma after a motorcycle fell on his limb at Tozeur.
Tomorrow (Tuesday), the competitors head further south from El Borma towards Ghadames for another big Tunisian stage totaling 228 competitive kilometres. While shorter than today's, the entire section is run off-road, testing driving skill and navigational ability to the limit. The route takes the crews over numerous Ergs (sand dune "mountains") and across successive belts of dunes and promises to favour the toughest and most proficient crews. After the stage, which finishes near the border crossing into Libya, the crews complete the usual customs formalities and drive a short 37 kilometre liaison section to Ghadames, Libya, for the overnight halt.