Er Rachidia (Morocco): Chilean KTM rider Carlo de Gavardo, Mitsubishi driver Hiroshi Masuoka and Johannes de Rooy in the DAF, benefited from the bonus of warm, dusty conditions to draw first blood in Africa, as the 24th Total Arras-Madrid-Dakar ...
Er Rachidia (Morocco): Chilean KTM rider Carlo de Gavardo, Mitsubishi driver Hiroshi Masuoka and Johannes de Rooy in the DAF, benefited from the bonus of warm, dusty conditions to draw first blood in Africa, as the 24th Total Arras-Madrid-Dakar Rally wound its way through Northern Morocco to an overnight halt in the Atlas foothills at Er Rachidia. KTM's Kari Tiainen, Nissan's Gregoire de Mevius and the Russian Kamaz outfit led the overall bikes, cars and trucks classifications.
There was little time for the weary Dakar caravan to enjoy the New Year festivities, before the start of the first stage in Africa - a slightly modified 85-kms run through forests and into a winding 444 kms liaison to the bivouac at El Rachidia. Torrential rain and chilly European temperatures were replaced by dry, sunny conditions - traditional Dakar weather had arrived at last - although recent heavy rain and floods in Morocco resulted in the stage start extension, when the organisers feared an overflowing wadi might burst.
On two wheels, De Gavardo beat South African Alfie Cox by 34 seconds on the slightly extended 85 kms special stage, as the pair edged away from the chasing pack. Defending champion Fabrizio Meoni unleashed the additional power of the LC8 'twin' and finished third overall, the Italian beating Finland's new overall leader Kari Tiainen by 22 seconds, despite a small problem.
Joan Roma, who led the event out of Europe on New Year's Eve, was fifth, ahead of fellow Spaniards Isidre Pujol Esteve and Jordi Acarons and twice former winner Richard Sainct. Cox, Roma, Despres and De Gavardo completed the top five behind Tiainen in the overall classification.
'The stage was okay. I didn't realise I had been fastest, but it is a nice feeling. I did a little damage to the front mudguard and it began flapping a little, but no real problem,' said De Gavardo, the winner of a stage in Morocco last year. 'The stage was short, but that liaison section went on and on,' groaned Cox. 'Tomorrow is the first real test.'
'We had a bizarre problem with the fuel feed for the twin-cylinder engine,' admitted Meoni. 'The motor cut out and it took two minutes to fix it. It was not serious, but I must resolve that and hopefully before Smara on Friday!'
Marc Coma was the only non-KTM within the top 13 at the start of the stage, but fuel pump problems cost him nearly two hours before the first passage control and the Spaniard completed the stage in 165th and last place.
In the Cars' category, Masuoka - the bridesmaid last year after a run of cruel luck in Senegal - beat overall rally leader De Mevius by 31s to move within 33s of the Belgian at the end of the fifth leg. Mitsubishis filled third and fifth places, Jutta Kleinschmidt and Kenjiro Shinozuka sandwiching Nissan's Stephane Peterhansel.
'It was a warm-up stage for me and for the car,' admitted Masuoka. 'I really like running on this track, I am pleased. For sure, I think of a final victory and I believe that is possible. But, to finish will be a combination of many things.'
World Champion Jean-Louis Schlesser started the stage in 64th place and had moved up to 11th place by the end of the stage. But team mate Stephane Henrard was not so fortunate; his diesel engine's turbo failed 300 kms from Er Rachidia and the Belgian is a likely retirement. Spaniard Fernando Gil, the hero of the European stages, slipped to eighth.
In the Trucks' section Johannes and Gerardus de Rooy and Yvo Geusens won the stage in a DAF AV75PC, but remain 76s behind the Russian Kamaz team of Vladimir Tchaguine, Semion Yakoubov and Serguei Savostine in the overall rankings. Italian former Formula One racing driver Paolo Barilla holds sixth place with the Mercedes Unimog.
Tomorrow (Wednesday) the Dakar caravan heads out of El-Rachidia into a short liaison and the longest stage of the event so far; a 338 kms special consisting of a tricky combination of rocky and undulating terrain, villages, and twisty gravel roads, which give way to the first dunes of the rally. The special skirts the Chebbi Erg and cuts through river valleys en route to a 182 kms liaison section into the bivouac at Ouarzazate.
It will be the first real test on the Dakar.