Arras-Madrid-Dakar: Stage three report

Madrid (Spain): Competitors arrived in the Spanish capital of Madrid late on Sunday evening after a gruelling 850 kms road liaison section from the morning's 35 kms special stage, which started shortly after dawn at Chateau Lastours, near Narbonne.

Madrid (Spain): Competitors arrived in the Spanish capital of Madrid late on Sunday evening after a gruelling 850 kms road liaison section from the morning's 35 kms special stage, which started shortly after dawn at Chateau Lastours, near Narbonne. There were stage wins for Richard Sainct and Gregoire de Mevius, the new overall leader in the Cars' category. Cyril Despres and Joan Roma jointly lead the Bikes section. The Italian crew of Corrado Pattono and Guido Toni led the Trucks category in a Mercedes Unimog.

Overnight Bike leader Pierro Quinonero was quickly overhauled over the tricky and varied stage through dry and dusty vineyards and across narrow farm tracks. Frenchmen Richard Sainct and Cyril Despres set the pace in the Bikes section, with Sainct, twice a former Dakar winner (1999 and 2000), snatching the stage win by four seconds from his KTM team mate to hold a similar overall position on the run south to Spain.

'I caught two competitors, but had to hold back because of the dust. It made me slow down a little.' admitted Sainct. 'It was a nice ride. I didn't push too hard, because we are still setting the bike up, but it is nice to ride well in front of so many people,' said Despres, the winner of the recent UAE Desert Challenge.

'It is not wise to take risks at this stage,' admitted Roma. 'If I have to start from behind on the first stage in Morocco, it is not too serious. It is only 80 kms and I think there is not too much dust.'

Kari Tianen finished fourth and holds third overall. 'I made no mistakes. The tyres were a little soft and the track was slippery. I will not push until the rally becomes physically and technically demanding.' Slippery gravel was no place for the powerful 'twins' of Giovanni Sala and Fabrizio Meoni. Sala completed the stage in sixth place with chunks of rubber hanging from the rear tyre; Meoni was eighth. The pair are seventh and ninth in the overall standings.

Fernando Gil's Seat Cordoba WRC had been purpose-built for the Dakar, but the Spaniard was unable to hold his overnight lead in the Cars' category. Nissan clinched its first Dakar stage win with the new Pick-Up, courtesy of Gregoire de Mevius's time of 24m 22s. The Belgian duly inherited the outright lead and will take a convincing 53s advantage over Jutta Kleinschmidt into Spain. Probably the happiest man in the Dakar caravan is Nissan team manager Andre Dessoude; his ambition was a stage win for the new Pick-Up..

'This year, for sure, we have a car capable of winning. But I am well-placed to know that in rally-raiding the theory and the practice are often very different,' said De Mevius.

Defending World Champion Jean-Louis Schlesser moved up from 68th to 11th overall after setting the second fastest time and Mitsubishis filled the next three places, with Kleinschmidt, Carlos Sousa and Hiroshi Masuoka leading the Pajero charge. 'I attacked very hard,' admitted Schlesser.

Miguel Prieto's grip on second place had been shortlived. The Spaniard was passed in the stage by Stephane Peterhansel, the newly-crowned World Enduro champion showing early potential in the new Nissan Pick-Up as he bids for a maiden Dakar title on four-wheels. He was sixth fastest, ahead of Jean-Pierre Fontenay in the fourth Mitsubishi, and 'Peter' now lies third overall on the run into Madrid.

Twice FIA Middle East rally champion Saeed Al-Hajri - tackling his first Dakar - was delayed for over 10 kms behind Frenchman Luc Alphand. 'It was one of those things,' shrugged the 10th-placed Qatari driver. Grenoble driver Bruno Saby lost time in the Ford Ranger with a flat tyre.

Corrado Pattono and Guido Toni's Mercedes Unimog had built up a 90-second advantage in the Trucks' category, with the experienced Kamaz team in second place, ahead of former Formula One racer Paolo Barilla and his Italian Unimog crew.

As the event headed south bitterly cold weather was replaced by a cool breeze and milder temperatures; it was a far cry from the fierce winter weather at La Souterraine. Chateau Lastours is a popular test venue for teams in the FIA World Rally Championship

On New Year's Eve (Monday) the Dakar caravan heads into a 6 kms special stage near Madrid, before commencing the long drive south through Spain, along the Costa Del Sol to the ferry port at Algeciras. A short ferry crossing to Tanger will be followed by a liaison to the first bivouac and New Year's Eve festivities in Rabat. It will be the Dakar's first taste of Africa.

In Spain, in the meantime, Joan 'Nani' Roma is sure to be the star.


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Series Dakar
Drivers Luc Alphand , Jean-Louis Schlesser , Jutta Kleinschmidt , Hiroshi Masuoka , Stéphane Peterhansel , Jean-Pierre Fontenay , Carlos Sousa , Fabrizio Meoni , Cyril Despres , Richard Sainct , Giovanni Sala , Miguel Prieto , Gregoire de Mevius , Bruno Saby , Paolo Barilla , Toni Guido , André Dessoude