Jean-Louis Schlesser powered his Schlesser-Ford buggy to victory in the first stage on the African continent in the 2006 Dakar, eclipsing the factory Mitsubishi and Volkswagen teams.
"Our opponents are very strong this year but we proved today that our small two-wheel-drive buggy could compete with the big factory cars," Schlesser said, clearly satisfied. "It's good for the Dakar. But my biggest satisfaction is to win with a car that I've entirely conceived."
Schlesser, who has three overall Dakar victories to his credit, came from a late starting position to edge the Mitsubishi Pajeros of Hiroshi Masuoka and Stephane Peterhansel by 19 and 37 seconds, respectively.
The stage win makes up for Schlesser's rather modest start in the Portuguese stages, and moves him up to 10th place in the standings, less than four and a half minutes back.
"Today there was a lot of dust," Masuoka recounted. "We drove for about 200 km with Carlos (Sainz), Luc (Alphand) and (Nasser) Al-Attiyah. Then I overtook Luc, Carlos lost his way a little and I was in second position. Then I overtook Nasser and was first at the end of the stage (until Schlesser arrived, taking over the top spot)."
"I am very surprised and happy to be leading," Roma admitted at the finish of the special stage. "I just tried to reach the finish without any mistakes. It is dangerous to push in the dust. At one point there were 10 or 15 bikes together."
Sainz, who won both stages in Portugal, was going well early in the stage, but lost time with an apparent navigation error, finishing today's stage in 12th place, nearly seven minutes off the pace.
"Today we noticed just what it means to be the first car into the stage," the rally veteran explained. "There were no dust trails from a leading car to follow, so we had to plot our route alone. Unfortunately we also got lost. The absence of the GPS data is very apparent!"
While the poor finish dropped "El Matador" to fourth overall, the Volkswagen team is still in a strong position. Bruno Saby holds third, followed by Sainz in fourth and Jutta Kleinschmidt in fifth -- all within one minute of Roma. Mark Miller and Giniel de Villiers have the team's other two Race Touaregs in seventh and 12th places, respectively.
Possibly the happiest driver on the day was Robby Gordon, whose Hummer H3 is clearly far better suited to Africa than to the Portuguese mountain roads. Disappointed with his 14th place before the crossing to Morocco, the versatile off-road veteran claimed a fifth place in today's special, just 90 seconds behind Masuoka.
"It was a good day. We clocked a good time and I am very satisfied with this result," Gordon said. "I lost myself in the early stage following Chicherit. At this time, Schlesser overtook us, (but) we quickly managed to find the good way. Otherwise, it was a fast stage in spite of the holes and the stones. Actually, it looked a bit like a baja, quite technically demanding."
The performance places Gordon in eighth overall, sandwiched between the works entries of Miller (Touareg) and Alphand (Pajero).
Nasser Al-Attiyah drove well for the X-Raid BMW team, but could not quite keep pace with the leaders, finishing 10th on the day. The 35-year-old Qatari driver slips back a little bit in the standings to 11th, but is still well within reach of the front, just three and a half minutes back.
In the motorcycle category, Cyril Despres' strategy of caution paid off, as the Frenchman rode cleanly on his Gauloises KTM on today's stage to take the overall lead from Repsol KTM's Marc Coma.
The fast man on the day was Australia's Andy Caldecott, who started well back and caught up with the leading pack, finishing the stage just over three minutes ahead of Andy Grider and Despres, and moving up from 18th to fourth in the standings.
"I think I have been lucky," Caldecott admitted. "I started 28th today, far behind the leaders, and I think it eased the stage for me in terms of navigation. I am quite surprised to win today, since I didn't really prepare for this rally."
Another "lucky" rider was KTM privateer Jose Manuel Pellicer, who finished 5th, just over four minutes behind Caldecott's works KTM, and hot on the heels of Grider, Despres and de Gavardo. Pellicer's speed moves him up to third in the standings, behind Despres and Coma, but it could have turned out much worse.
"It was a very fast stage, very fast indeed," Pellicer told the story. "I fell as I was passing over a huge hole. When I saw it was that huge, I jumped off my bike because I was very surprised. I fell on the ground and broke my helmet. But everything is OK. Actually I think I took too many risks."
"When I caught up the leaders, I stayed with them," he continued. "But they rode definitely too fast for me. And on this kind of stage, it is too dangerous for me."
Of the other favorites, yesterday's leader, Coma, finished 5:45 off the pace, but that was still fast enough for him to be classified second in the standings.
For the heavy trucks, it was another (Vladimir) Tchaguine day, as the Russian powered his Kamaz 4911 through the dust into a clear stage victory, over seven minutes ahead of Miki Biasion's Iveco Trakker.
"It was a good race today, a very classical rally race," the four-time Dakar winner said. "The only issue for us was to overcome some 40 cars and that was pretty dangerous because of the dusty roads".
Hans Stacey, who lost a lot of time with a crash on the opening stage, falling an hour behind demonstrated the speed of his MAN TGA today, setting a stage time only 9:37 behind Tchaguine -- in spite of the heavy dust he encountered due to the late starting position -- and climbing from 44th to 11th position in the standings.
"Since I am a former rally pilot, I wanted to attack as soon as the first special in Portugal, but I lost time after damaging the truck," Stacey said. "Yesterday, I couldn't take part in the race because of (Thomas Tomecek's) crash. I attacked until the CP2 and then I slowed down because of dust roads. I am truly satisfied of my day even if I know that I can't catch up with Kamaz trucks for the moment."
Tchaguine's domination so far aside, three surprises have marked the truck competition thus far. The first shocker was the failure of the DAF teams to pass technical scrutineering, eliminating the De Rooy and Hans Bekx trucks from competition.
The positive note so far has been the competitiveness of the Motorsport Italia squad: after a relatively low-profile effort last year, the team switched to heavier Iveco Trakkers for 2006, and has three trucks in the top six positions, with Biasion in second, 14 minutes back of Tchaguine, and Markku Alen and Pep Vila in fifth and sixth.
"I'm very happy about the result today because we couldn't test the truck before the start of the Dakar," Biasion said. "The truck needed a three-month preparation but we found that everything was fine with it."
Brazil's Andre de Azevedo holds down third in the category for Petrobras Lubrax Tatra, after losing 25 minutes on the stage to Tchaguine, followed by Czech veteran Karel Loprais, also in a Tatra. Loprais, too, is back in his element, moving from seventh overall to fourth after today's stage.
Tomorrow's fourth stage, from Ouarzazate to Er Rachidia, will give the teams their first encounter with sand dunes, presenting another challenge, especially to those crews new to Dakar.