MITSUBISHI PERFECTLY POISED FOR THE FINAL DAYS OF DAKAR COMPETITION At the mid-point of the 2006 Dakar Rally, the Repsol Mitsubishi Ralliart Team is perfectly poised and its vast experience of this legendary event has put it in a commanding ...
MITSUBISHI PERFECTLY POISED FOR THE FINAL DAYS OF DAKAR COMPETITION
At the mid-point of the 2006 Dakar Rally, the Repsol Mitsubishi Ralliart Team is perfectly poised and its vast experience of this legendary event has put it in a commanding position for an 11th overall victory and sixth consecutive win. After eight days of competition, defending champions Stéphane Peterhansel and Jean-Paul Cottret top the leaderboard with Mitsubishi Pajero / Montero Evolution team-mates Luc Alphand and Gilles Picard just 32 seconds adrift in second position. Joan 'Nani' Roma and Henri Magne, piloting the team's third car, hold fourth. In a quite remarkable feat, all three Mitsubishi Pajero / Montero Evolution crews have led this year's event.
A record number of 475 vehicles began the event from the Portuguese capital of Lisbon on New Year's Eve and, of the 174 cars permitted to start, 110 have currently made it to the overnight halt and rest day in the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott. Here, the Repsol Mitsubishi Ralliart Team mechanics, including an additional 11 flown in from Europe, will spend the day re-preparing the three Mitsubishi Pajero / Montero Evolutions for the rigors ahead. Unfortunately, Hiroshi Masuoka and Pascal Maimon were forced out of the event after the fourth leg, the crew's Pajero / Montero Evolution sustaining too much damage after a roll.
Stéphane Peterhansel and Jean-Paul Cottret may once again be at the head of the Dakar Rally leaderboard, but the French crew have experienced their own problems during what has already been a tough and grueling event. The defending champions suffered early on by running first on the road, collecting punctures as they cleared the way for those behind. From an early 12th position, the crew gradually overhauled their rivals and arrived in Africa 10th overall. While they managed to climb to sixth after the first African stage, a costly navigational error in the fourth leg dropped them back to 11th.
Undeterred, Peterhansel went on to set his first fastest stage time of the 2006 event in leg five, marking the start of the multiple Dakar Rally winner's challenge for victory. From ninth position in the overall rankings, he and Jean-Paul Cottret demonstrated the driving and navigational capabilities that have seen them win two Dakars for Mitsubishi by setting another fastest time in the seventh leg. As the going got tough in Mauritania, and problems with navigation continued to see rivals fall behind, the Mitsubishi Pajero / Montero Evolution crew came to the fore, powering into second position after another fastest section time - Peterhansel's 50th on the Dakar - before taking the overall lead going into the rest day in Nouakchott.
"The last stage in Mauritania on Monday will be very difficult and anything can happen," said Peterhansel today. "I will begin behind Thierry Magnaldi, but it really is not a problem where I start. The last two days I was at the front of the field and it was okay. The most important thing is to keep up our pace and put more pressure on our rivals. I think that Giniel de Villiers is still our main challenger. Luc is driving for the same team as me, so if either of us could win it would be great for Mitsubishi. We need to build up our advantage."
Luc Alphand and Gilles Picard head into the second half of this year's Dakar hot on their team-mates' heels. After eight days, the pair lie second overall, 32 seconds adrift - a quite remarkable result after more than two and a half thousand kilometers of competitive sections. The French pair were the early pace-setters for Mitsubishi and held second after the first two stages in Europe but then dropped back to ninth after the opening stage in Morocco, where they lost time in rivals' dust. They nevertheless powered back up to fourth, and then third overall by the time the Dakar convoy arrived in Tan Tan. The first section in Mauritania - from Tan Tan to Zouérat - was not best suited to the power of the Mitsubishi Pajero / Montero Evolution and, after a day focused on survival, the crew had slipped to fifth.
However, on the run into Atar - over the first real desert stage (leg 7) - the crew claimed second fastest time, behind Peterhansel, to power into the lead of the 2006 Dakar Rally. It was a day dominated by navigation woes for those around them, but both Peterhansel and Alphand demonstrated true superiority, leaving rivals in their wake. In the final day of competition before today's rest day, the French crew claimed another second position but lost time to Peterhansel and slipped to second overall after getting stuck in the sand and briefly losing their way. The fact that both Peterhansel and Alphand are now split by just 32 seconds is however a remarkable result and Mitsubishi's nearest rival is a distant 26 minutes adrift.
"I think the priority next week is not to concentrate too much on the difference between Stéphane and me, but to keep our focus on the track," said Alphand. "Monday's stage will be very difficult. We will try to drive as fast as possible and keep in touch with Stéphane. There will be dunes near the start on Monday, so we will have to stop to deflate and inflate the tires, losing a minute or so each time, but it is so much better to do this. We will assess the situation again on Monday night, because I am sure the strategy will change each day next week. It will just be a case of looking at the position at the end of every stage and making a fresh decision."
Joan 'Nani' Roma and Henri Magne will re-start the second half of the Dakar Rally in fourth position. The Spaniard and Andorra-based co-driver arrived on African soil in third position and then powered into the lead of the Dakar Rally after the first Moroccan stage. But they too experienced problems and in the fourth leg dropped to ninth after a navigational error, a puncture and broken jack. After this disappointment however, they climbed back into seventh the following day and despite another difficult time in the seventh leg from Zouérat to Atar, they again climbed the leaderboard into sixth. In the final day of competition before the rest day, they once again powered ahead, fourth fastest in the section to move into fourth overall in the team's third Pajero / Montero Evolution.
Roma and Magne have settled into a vital support role for their team-mates. "I am still in touch with Stéphane and Luc and well-placed to have a big say in the overall result," said Roma. "The pressure is not on me to win at this point, but I will be able to push next week and put the pressure on Giniel de Villiers and the Buggies. This will benefit our top two drivers."
Repsol Mitsubishi Ralliart Team Director Dominique Serieys said: "If the rally had ended in Nouakchott I would be able to say our team had done a very good job. But we must remember that we are only just over half way to Dakar. I am confident that everyone will see this through to a successful finish next Sunday, but we must not get carried away. There are many difficult stages to come and this is the Dakar, where anything can happen. I feel we have great team spirit and we are all working for each other. These are our greatest strengths."
Repsol Mitsubishi Ralliart Team President Isao Torii was delighted with the team's progress through the first week of the event. "We knew at the beginning this would be a very tough event. Volkswagen made a great start and I admit that I was very anxious for a couple of days. But over the last two days our team has done a very good job and it is working well. It will still be very difficult next week, but I just hope all our team continue their great work and I have every confidence that this will carry us through to victory next Sunday."
Tomorrow (Monday) the rally re-starts with a daunting 599 kilometer special stage between Nouakchott and Kiffa in the south-east of Mauritania. The stage begins 30 kilometers from the rest halt and meanders across vast stretches of sandy wasteland, large dunes and several tricky plateaux. This is the longest stage of the 2006 Dakar Rally and finishes 245 kilometers from the overnight halt at Kiffa. Teams are expected to arrive very late at the bivouac on Monday evening.
Mitsubishi's Thai and Chinese crews power on
Guan Yuan Men and French co-driver Serge Henninot began Friday's stage into Nouakchott in 58th place. Last year the Chinese driver had been stranded in the dunes for over three days and returned to the Atar bivouac after being rescued by an organisers' team. They held 42nd position through the second passage control of the grueling stage and arrived for the rest day in a fine 51st position overall.
"Men and I had a good chat about what happened on the first week and what we can expect from the final days," said French co-driver Serge Henninot. "He has made great progress this year as a driver, but we have made some small mistakes.
"On a positive note we are in a much better position to last year. On Monday morning we must take great care not to lose too much time at the start of the stage in the dunes. It is a long day and that would be a disaster. If we are okay tomorrow, I told Men to relax and get ready to enjoy Black Africa. It will not be as difficult as the desert and he has good experience in China and Morocco of dusty tracks. I feel sure that we can then make it to Dakar."
Thailand's Mana Pornsiriched and French co-driver Jean Brucy began Friday's stage in 68th place in their Ralliart-prepared Mitsubishi Racing Triton Evolution after clutch problems had dropped them back at Atar.
Their problems had begun at the 75 kilometer point of the stage on Friday, when their clutch began slipping. Rather than risk the car through the tricky dune section, the crew returned to Zouérat and took the assistance vehicles' road section to the bivouac in Atar, taking on a mass of time penalties into the bargain.
"Our biggest scare was being over the time limit and taking on too many penalties," said co-driver Brucy. "But it was better to be safe rather than sorry."
The Thai driver was in inspired form on the stage into Nouakchott yesterday, however, and claimed an impressive 16th fastest time through the stage. His current position is however unclear as the organisers check his penalties from Friday.