Rabat (Morocco): Competitors arrived in Rabat shortly before the start of New Year celebrations on Monday evening after a grueling near-1,000 kms trek south from the overnight halt in Madrid. It turned out to be an enjoyable end to 2001 for local...
Rabat (Morocco): Competitors arrived in Rabat shortly before the start of New Year celebrations on Monday evening after a grueling near-1,000 kms trek south from the overnight halt in Madrid. It turned out to be an enjoyable end to 2001 for local heroes Joan 'Nani' Roma and Fernando Gil, convincing winners of the six-kilometre muddy special stage held within the confines of the Spanish capital's potential 2012 Olympic complex.
Roma, riding a single-cylinder KTM for the Telefonica-Repsol team, will take a 14-second overall lead into Africa. He beat Finland's Kari Tiainen by nine seconds in the stage, with Frenchman Cyril Despres, fellow Spaniard Isidre Pujol Esteve and Dutchman Eric Verhoef completing the mud-splattered top five. Defending champion Fabrizio Meoni finished the stage in 14th overall, a place ahead of team mate Giovanni Sala. Meoni duly heads into Africa in 10th place. Despres, Tiainen, Sainct and Pujol Esteve complete the overall top five.
'I was surprised to win the special stage,' admitted Roma. 'I was not riding too hard today. For me the Dakar does not start until after tomorrow. That said, I was impressed with the response of the Spanish public and the organisation of the stage. It was warming to the heart.' Sixth-placed Marc Coma (Suzuki) is the only non-KTM runner in the top 13.
Competitors had arrived in Europe's highest city in constant drizzle and it continued to fall unabated during the morning. As a result of the appalling conditions the stage was cancelled for the Trucks category for the second time in three days.
Fernando Gil had enjoyed the limelight on Saturday, when he set the fastest Cars' time in the quagmire at La Souterraine. The Seat Cordoba WRC driver was back in the headlines in his native Spain by crushing the opposition in the Madrid special stage, beating nearest rival Klever Kolberg (Mitsubishi) by seven seconds. His sensational time of 5m 48s promoted the Seat into second overall, a mere 14 seconds behind the Belgian overall leader Gregoire de Mevius in a Nissan Pick-Up.
'I pushed very hard this morning. This is Madrid, this is my country and these are my home fans,' said a delighted Gil. 'I wanted to win the stage and chose the same tyres as two days ago.'
The leading cars slithered through the mud, clipped the crash barriers, spraying brave spectators with mud. Mitsubishi's Jean-Pierre Fontenay was the fastest of the regular off-road specialists in 24th place, 1m 22s behind the flying Gil. Klever Kolberg, Bruno Saby (Ford), Gianni Lora Lamia (Mitsubishi) and Manuel Perez Plaza (Nissan), completed the top five. In the overall classification Peterhansel maintains his third place, with Sousa, Masuoka and Kleinschmidt completing the top six.
Defending World Champion Jean-Louis Schlesser oversteered his way to the finish and was duly passed by arch rival Jutta Kleinschmidt on the final corner. The Frenchman dropped 3m 06s to Fontenay in a mere six-kilometres and nearly four and a half to Gil. This evening he arrives in Africa, a staggering 6m 24s behind the leading Nissan.
'I started behind Jean-Louis and could see that he would struggle in there,' said Jutta, the reigning Dakar champion. 'I suppose that gave me a little incentive to push and we caught him two corners from the end. He came out of the hairpin and went a little sideways and we were able to pass him. Now we must get ready for the real race.'
There was disappointment for Spaniard Miguel Prieto - second overall in the opening stage on Saturday; he completed the stage but damaged the engine in the Pajero.
After enjoying a few precious moments of relaxation under the stars at the first traditional bivouac in Rabat, competitors will head into an 80 kms competitive section in Africa on Tuesday. The stage will take place through pine, cork and eucalyptus tree forests. It will be a timely reminder of the perils which lie ahead. For the Trucks it will be only the second time that they have competed competitively in four days.
Over the last few days there has been rain in Northern Morocco. The Dakar would like to see some sun, quickly..!