Dakar: Mitsubishi stage 16 report

Masuoka on course for second consecutive Dakar win. Japan's Hiroshi Masuoka and his German co-driver Andreas Schulz have taken the lead of the Telefónica Dakar Rally, in their Mitsubishi Pajero Evolution / Montero Evolution. They finished...

Masuoka on course for second consecutive Dakar win.

Japan's Hiroshi Masuoka and his German co-driver Andreas Schulz have taken the lead of the Telef?nica Dakar Rally, in their Mitsubishi Pajero Evolution / Montero Evolution. They finished today's gruelling 365 km special stage from Abu Rish to Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt in sixth place, with no major incidents, while their team-mate and former leader Peterhansel dropped back after a crash. With only one 34 km stage remaining, Masuoka is on track to repeat his 2002 Dakar win.

Carlos Sousa and Henri Magne.
Photo by Mitsubishi Motors Corporation.

Masuoka started today's penultimate stage 25m 50s behind St?phane Peterhansel and his co-driver Jean-Paul Cottret. However, the day took a dramatic turn when Peterhansel was forced to stop twice to check a leaking radiator, although he still managed to maintain his advantage over Masuoka. But worse was to come, and the Frenchman lost the overall lead of the rally when he crashed into a large rock 45 km from the finish point, wrecking a wheel on the n° 206 Mitsubishi Pajero Evolution / Montero Evolution.

Peterhansel, who has been in the lead for much of the rally, only briefly handing over the overall command to Masuoka on stage 5, was first forced to stop 66 km into today's special stage, which took place on the mountainous Sinai Peninsula. By the time he reached the first checkpoint, his lead had been reduced to just over six minutes.

Masuoka had started ahead of Peterhansel this morning, and he was unaware of his team mate's problems. The 2002 winner was taking care over the treacherously rough tracks, which allowed Peterhansel to regain much of the time he had lost. By the fourth checkpoint, the Frenchman had fought his way back to a commanding overall lead.

However, 45 kilometres from the stage finish, the six-times Dakar motorbike winner attempted to overtake the Volkswagen driven by Belgium's St?phane Henrard, hitting a large rock lying on the side of the track. The impact wrecked both the wheel and suspension on the Mitsubishi, in an almost identical incident to that which cost Masuoka victory on the Dakar in Senegal in 2001.

"I don't know how I feel at the moment", Masuoka said afterwards. "I drove slowly today. It was too difficult and too rough to drive quickly. St?phane has driven the quickest this year and he should have won this rally. It is very bad luck for him. I know how he must be feeling. I was feeling tired this morning, and I must have eaten something bad, because I had a pain in my stomach. I was not pushing and we did not see St?phane at all on the stage".

Schulz described the stage in further detail. "It was incredibly difficult out there today", said the German, who was the winning co-driver in the 2001 Dakar. "It would be nice to go up into these hills on a holiday, but not for the final stage of this rally. It was impossible to go quickly, even if you wanted to".

South African Giniel de Villiers had been the quickest through the early section of today's 16th stage, in his bid to catch Mitsubishi's Carlos Sousa and seize fifth position. But de Villiers lost his way near the end and "Miki" Biasion, driving a classic Mitsubishi Pajero / Montero, went on to win his first ever stage on the Dakar Rally. Further to Peterhansel's problems, he has also been promoted to third place in the overall classification. However, this was followed by the embarrassment of getting stuck on the finish ramp in Sharm El Sheikh, until a minor transmission problem could be rectified.

"I felt the gearbox was not right from quite early on", Biasion explained. "Then I lost second gear and then I had a puncture. On the finish ramp the 'box jammed and I had no gears. I had to free it off and roll down the podium!" He was followed home by Henrard in the Volkswagen Tarek.

Frenchman Jean-Pierre Fontenay was third fastest today and moved up to second in the overall standings. "That was the most difficult stage of the entire rally", said a visibly shattered Fontenay. "There were large rocks. It was difficult. It was twisty. It was unbelievable".

Meanwhile, Spanish off-road champion Jos?-Luis Monterde is on course to finish the race as the leading privateer in his Ralliart Mitsubishi Pajero / Montero. Monterde is currently 11th overall with just one short stage remaining.

Tomorrow is the final day of the 2003 Telef?nica Dakar Rally. A 13 km liaison section will take the Mitsubishi Motors Team, currently occupying the top five positions in the overall classification, into the last special stage, just 34 km long. A final nine kilometres of liaison will then take teams to the finish ramp in Sharm El Sheikh. The prize-giving will take place on the podium.


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Series Dakar
Drivers Henri Magne , Hiroshi Masuoka , Andreas Schulz , Jean-Paul Cottret , Jean-Pierre Fontenay , Carlos Sousa , Giniel de Villiers