Punctures for the Nissan Pickups...

Having started this morning' s special stage between Rabat and Agadir in the lead, Colin McRae was not able to repeat yesterday' s fastest time. Slowed by a puncture, just like his team-mate Giniel de Villiers, he lost a few minutes - not a serious problem at this stage of the race. A cautious Ari Vatanen finished 9th. In the overall classification, the Nissan Pickup vehicles are in 6th, 9th and 10th places.

Last night saw the Dakar caravan spend its first night in Africa, at the Rabat bivouac. As always, they received an extremely warm greeting from Morocco and its inhabitants, especially as this year will see two stages take place within the Kingdom. The first of these special stages, between Rabat and Agadir, was expected to be difficult from a navigational point of view. Although it went smoothly for the four-wheeled competitors, the timed section was cancelled for the bikes due to thick fog, which prevented the safety helicopters from taking off, leaving the 123 km stage to be run by the cars and trucks.

The Nissan Pickups did not have any navigation problems, but both Colin McRae and Giniel de Villiers suffered punctures. They both lost a few minutes in the stage, won by Robby Gordon, but nothing too serious. Colin finished eleventh, with Giniel eighth. As for Ari Vatanen, who had no tyre problems, he finished the special stage in ninth position. The Nissan Pickups are keeping their strength for Mauritania...

Colin McRae did not appear to be too upset by this untimely puncture : "The stage was beautiful. Over the first few kilometres, it really looked like a World Rally Championship stage. But the navigation soon got complicated. It was vital not to miss any of the changes of direction, and it was not easy to anticipate them all. Unfortunately, we picked up a stone and got a puncture at the rear. It would have been impossible to carry on. So we changed the wheel and lost some time. But it is not that important at this stage of the race. The important thing is that I have a very good feeling for the Pickup, and that the car is behaving perfectly."

Ari Vatanen, who finished 9th, did not push hard today : "It was a real track, with a lot of stones. We drove calmly, without taking any risks. We set a good pace, but Robby Gordon was really driving fast. Over this sort of stage, if you push too hard, you can lose a lot. It is more important to be calm. The car was very nice to drive today. Tomorrow, the stage will be longer. The rhythm of the rally is increasing day by day. That' s the Dakar for you !"

Like Colin McRae, Giniel de Villiers also had a puncture : "It did not go too badly, despite the stones and the dust.

But 15 kilometres from the start, we had a puncture. We had to change the wheel ; the hardest thing afterwards was to overtake all the cars which had got ahead while we were stopped. It is quite dangerous. I know that Mauritania will be difficult, and my main aim is to take care of the car. I am being careful, as I would not like to throw away our chances."

The rally is only just starting, and the Nissan Rally Raid Team prefers to play it safe. There is no place for overconfidence or excesses of any kind. It is certain that Mauritania will be vitally important, but before then, there will be a second stage over the Moroccan trails, between Agadir and Smara. The rally will head south for a 381 km special stage, and the difficulty will go up another level.