Arras-Madrid-Dakar: Stage eight report

Zouerat (Mauritania): Defending champion Fabrizio Meoni crushed the opposition on the high-speed second half of the first Marathon stage in this year's Total Arras-Madrid-Dakar Rally, as the event crossed the border into the Islamic Republic of ...

Zouerat (Mauritania): Defending champion Fabrizio Meoni crushed the opposition on the high-speed second half of the first Marathon stage in this year's Total Arras-Madrid-Dakar Rally, as the event crossed the border into the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. The Italian took full advantage of the additional power of the twin-cylinder KTM LC8 to beat his nearest rival by over seven minutes. The performance rocketed him into a 2m 28s overall lead in the bikes' category.

Kenjiro Shinozuka won the first stage of his Dakar campaign to inch ever closer to Mitsubishi team mate Hiroshi Masuoka in the overall cars' standings. Team mate Jean-Pierre Fontenay was second, the Nissan pairing of Gregoire de Mevius and Stephane Peterhansel and defending champion Jutta Kleinschmidt completed the top five, ahead of overall race leader Hiroshi Masuoka in sixth. As a result of his stage win, Shinozuka duly closed the gap on his team mate to a mere 27s.

But the performance of the day belonged to Meoni on two-wheels: 'I was a bit concerned about the mousse in the tyres with the hot weather and the high speed,' said Meoni. 'But it was okay. I rode with Roma to the first PC over the technical section and then we refuelled and I used the gas to pull away.' It proved to be the best stage for the LC8 thus far.'

Roma duly relinquished his overnight lead: 'It was a very fast stage. I rode with Meoni early on, but he pulled away. The stage was always going to be won by a bike on 'full gas'.' Chilean Carlo De Gavardo maintained second overall, Roma slipped to third and South African Alfie Cox was fourth. 'From a sporting point of view it was Meoni's day,' said De Gavardo. 'To gain such a big advantage was a great performance.'

With the exception of the first section, the high-speed nature of the stage provided few difficulties for the cars, with Mitsubishi again getting the better of Japanese rival Nissan. Behind the leaders, Israeli driver Nir Barkat and Qatar's Saeed Al-Hajri were running well inside the top 10. De Mevius, meanwhile, had completed the stage but the engine died at the finish control and refused to restart; it was not the news Nissan needed to hear, as the Belgian headed into the bivouac to effect emergency repairs, staring the thought of an 18m penalty in the face, which would nearly drop him into the clutches of Kleinschmidt.

'For the first 30 or 40 kms today the stage was twisty and rocky and then it was just straight, very fast,' insisted Shinozuka. 'We have not had the power steering working now for three days. Today not a problem, but tomorrow will be big problem. The mechanics do not know what is wrong. We must look at this today. I cannot drive tomorrow like this.'

Team mate Hiroshi Masuoka retained his overall lead: 'Not that difficult today. Very fast. I had a good sleep and I don't feel too tired. Tomorrow will be the most difficult stage on the rally so far. It is time for my attack.'

There was more misery for the Schlesser-Renault operation and its sole-surviving Spaniard Jose-Maria Servia, who lost considerable time with radiator problems and promoted Al-Hajri to seventh overall. In the Production category, Nissan's Thierry de Lavergne heads fellow Frenchman Jean-Pierre Strugo in a Mercedes. 'Yesterday was the 'hors d'oeuvre', today was the 'main course' and Europe was the 'aperitif',' joked Strugo. 'I am 25m behind Thierry and now I moved ahead of Lhotellerie (No. 223) by 30m. The next five days will be the most important for me.'

The Russian Kamaz operation extended its advantage in the Trucks' category with a third successive stage win.

Tomorrow (Saturday) competitors head further south to Atar, crossing several ergs, patches of treacherous camel grass and the infamous Erg of El-Beyyed. The vast proportion of the section is competitive, with a mere 13 kms of the day's 396 kms route being used as a liaison. Sunday will act as the event's traditional rest day, enabling teams to take a much needed break from proceedings.

-aso-

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Series Dakar
Drivers Hiroshi Masuoka , Stéphane Peterhansel , Jean-Pierre Fontenay , Kenjiro Shinozuka , Thierry de Lavergne , Fabrizio Meoni , Alfie Cox , Gregoire de Mevius , Jean-Pierre Strugo