STABLE LINE-UP TARGETS RECORD EIGHTH CONSECUTIVE DAKAR SUCCESS FOR REPSOL MITSUBISHI RALLIART TEAM As the Dakar Rally prepares to celebrate its 30th anniversary event, Mitsubishi Motors Corporation (MMC) and its motorsport unit MMSP have entered...
STABLE LINE-UP TARGETS RECORD EIGHTH CONSECUTIVE DAKAR SUCCESS FOR REPSOL MITSUBISHI RALLIART TEAM
As the Dakar Rally prepares to celebrate its 30th anniversary event, Mitsubishi Motors Corporation (MMC) and its motorsport unit MMSP have entered a field of four cars for the 2008 Dakar as the Japanese carmaker bids to take its score to a record-breaking 13 overall victories from 26 starts, and its eighth consecutive success.
Mitsubishi, which first contested the celebrated African marathon for the first time in 1983, has gone unbeaten on the event since the turn of the century and a line-up of four latest-spec Mitsubishi Pajero/Montero Evolution MPR13s has been entered for 2008's 16-day rally which starts in Lisbon on Saturday January 5. The event finishes beside the Lac Rose, near Dakar, Senegal, on Sunday January 20.
One of the strengths of Repsol Mitsubishi Ralliart's 2008 assault will be the fact that its driver line-up remains unchanged for the second year running. Spearheading the team's challenge will be former winners Stephane Peterhansel/Jean-Paul Cottret (France), Hiroshi Masuoka/Pascal Maimon (Japan/France) and Luc Alphand/Gilles Picard (France), plus Joan 'Nani' Roma (Spain), who finished third on the 2006 Dakar, who pairs up once again with Lucas Cruz (Spain).
Stephane Peterhansel, 42, became the second driver to win the Dakar on both two and four wheels when he secured the first of his three victories with Mitsubishi in 2004. This time round, he will be looking to follow up his 2007 success with a fourth win at the wheel of the Pajero/Montero Evolution. "Nobody's saying it will be easy, but I've got one more year's experience behind me, I'll be with the same co-driver and I'll be driving the same car for the same team that won last January, so it's not as though we were starting out from scratch," observes the Frenchman. "True, the new technical regulations in force for the 2008 event [switch from a six- to a five-speed gearbox, 32mm to 31mm engine air-restrictor] tend to put the MPR13 at a handicap in outright performance terms, but we have spent all year working on the chassis and ride comfort so there is good reason to be positive about our chances, despite the high standard of the opposition."
"With even more competitive action on the menu this year, reliability promises to be crucial, too, and my recent win in Dubai for Mitsubishi was a very encouraging sign in that domain. That said, despite its resemblance to the Dakar's Mauritanian stages in places, the UAE Desert Challenge is a very different sort of challenge. The Dakar demands a more sustained, faster pace, yet at the same time we are much more familiar with the terrain. It is consequently easier to sense the hazards and adjust your speed accordingly. Gauging how fast you can go is more instinctive, and that's where the experience factor comes into play..."
Indeed, Peterhansel and his co-driver will form one of the most experienced pairings on the 2008 event which will be Cottret's 24th entry, while Alphand's co-driver, Gilles Picard (France), former biker is about to tackle his 20th Dakar, with a 50/50 split between his starts on two and four wheels... "It's not just our experience that counts, though," he continues. "The team behind us is also incredibly experienced and strong, from the engineers, technicians and mechanics to the management staff. They are all highly skilled in their respective fields and are genuinely passionate about the sport. Another of our strengths will be the bond that exists between all the drivers and co-drivers. We form a closely-knit group and our objective will be to work together to try to win for Mitsubishi."
Former Downhill skiing champion Luc Alphand, 42, who won the 2006 Dakar with Mitsubishi and who finished second behind Peterhansel in 2005 and 2007, is swift to echo his team-mate's analysis. "Team spirit and solidarity are essential," he stresses. "You never know when it might be your turn to require help, especially since the 2008 route promises to be very difficult. Reliability also promises to be the key to a top result, as it always is. That said, you can't just sit back and wait for your rivals to hit trouble. You've got to stay in contact with the front-runners and you rarely get a chance to take a breather on the Dakar. It will be therefore important to be part of the leading group through Morocco before the core of the challenge which, to my mind, will be the marathon legs and the Mauritanian stages. That is why our victory on the UAE Desert Challenge, which bears certain similarities to the western Sahara -- was so encouraging. Obviously, we can't read too much into our performance in Dubai against a strong field, but we were competitive and Stephane and I both led. Now I'm just looking forward to the Dakar. I feel optimistic, we are all in great shape thanks to our physical fitness programme and, above all, as I say, we form a bonded team."
The 2008 Dakar will be Hiroshi Masuoka's 21st start on the world's most famous Cross Country Rally which he has already won on two previous occasions, in 2002 (with current co-driver Pascal Maimon) and 2003. "I think it's time for 'Samurai' Masuoka to add another victory to that list," smiles the 47-year old Japanese driver. "I would dearly love to make it eight Dakar wins in a row and 13 in total for the Pajero/Montero, although this record is due as much as anything to the Repsol Mitsubishi Ralliart team's collective, in-depth strength. Despite our current successful run, each event is seen as a fresh challenge but I will do everything I can to try to secure another win. There will be plenty of pressure on us and we face strong opposition against teams like Volkswagen and BMW, so it won't be easy and I am sure it will be a very fierce fight."
"The rumour is that there will be more sand and more dunes on the 2008 Dakar," he continues. "That will obviously make it very difficult, but it could also play into the hands of the Pajero/Montero which is very strong on this type of terrain. Personally, I enjoy competing on sand, too, especially following the good work the team has put in on the MPR13 during testing in Africa this year. The car has improved a little in all areas, beginning with the suspension. And while the engine has been developed almost as far as it can go, the overall package has evolved. Naturally, the engineers have had to adapt to the new rule which forces us to run a five-speed gearbox. They had to take a close look at the ratios and I think the end result is very satisfactory. It could even be an improvement, in fact."
As the youngest member of the squad and its most recent recruit, 35-year old Nani Roma recognizes that he has less experience of the Dakar than his team-mates, but believes he has made solid progress since last year's event. "I think I have notably improved in terms of outright speed," says the Spaniard who came second on the Rally Transiberico and the Baja Espana in 2007 after proving a match on the stages in Portugal for two-time World Rally Champion Carlos Sainz. "I still need more experience on sand and in camel grass, though. I see myself as a quick learner but it's difficult to practice over that sort of terrain during the year and, unfortunately, my run in Dubai was curtailed prematurely again.
"When you finish on the podium at only second attempt, like I did in 2006, it's easy to see yourself as a potential winner the following year. However, you've got to keep your feet on the ground: success doesn't come overnight, not even for the likes of Stephane, Luc and Hiroshi. That said, I believe I am capable of keeping up with the leading group and I will do my best to win if the opportunity arises, but I know it won't be easy. One thing in my favour is the fact that this will be my second Dakar with Lucas as co-driver. It wasn't simple for him to sit in for the 2007 event but, in a way, we have grown together this year and he has received so much help from the other co-drivers. Indeed, that's one of Repsol Mitsubishi Ralliart's big strengths: we form a genuine, bonded team. By that, I don't just mean the crews; I include everyone. However good a driver you are, it's vital to have talented engineers to design the car and skilled, motivated people to work on it in the evening after each stage..."
Repsol Mitsubishi Ralliart Team Director Dominique Serieys is looking forward to the challenge of helping Mitsubishi score a record eighth consecutive win on the Dakar, but acknowledges that his mission will be far from easy. "For the 30th anniversary Dakar, I think we can expect a very difficult route through Morocco and Mauritania, although I think the Mauritanian stages will be the toughest test," he predicts. "The experience of our crews and team will obviously be a 'plus' for Repsol Mitsubishi Ralliart, while the reliability of the Pajero/Montero Evolution also promises to be a big asset. That said, the exact effect the changes that have been made to the technical regulations will have on us for the 2008 Dakar remains to be seen." Dominique Serieys is also acutely aware of the high quality of this year's entry and knows that he faces some stiff opposition. "Volkswagen has a very strong line-up with Sainz and de Villiers. We mustn't forget the BMW operation either; it benefits from factory support and some experienced drivers. And, as ever, there's no way anyone should overlook Schlesser."
For the third year running, the Dakar will start from the Portuguese capital Lisbon. Scrutineering takes place from Wednesday January 2, while competitive action will begin with a prologue in Portugal (where an estimated million spectators turned out to watch the 2007 event's two prologues!) before the convoy is shipped across the Mediterranean for the first African stage in Morocco.
The organisers promise an extra 10 per cent of stages in 2008, with a total competitive distance of around 4,800km compared with 4,300km on last year's event. The selective sections themselves will also be longer, while the road sections will be shorter. The traditional rocky trails of Morocco will be followed by the sandy reaches and dunes of Mauritania and the rest day in Nouakchott on Sunday January 13 will come as a welcome break for everyone before the competition resumes until the finish by the Lac Rose, near Dakar, Senegal, on Sunday January 20.