Dakar: Mitsubishi stage six report

Peterhansel reclaims the lead Mitsubishi one-two; Fontenay loses time in the sand Mitsubishi Pajero Evolution / Montero Evolution driver Stéphane Peterhansel has reclaimed the lead of the 2003 Telefónica Dakar Rally. The Frenchman dominated ...

Peterhansel reclaims the lead
Mitsubishi one-two; Fontenay loses time in the sand

Mitsubishi Pajero Evolution / Montero Evolution driver St?phane Peterhansel has reclaimed the lead of the 2003 Telef?nica Dakar Rally. The Frenchman dominated today's 228 kilometre stage and took his third victory over the first stage run totally off road, over Ergs and classic Dakar sand dunes. Mitsubishi Motors drivers now hold first, second, fifth and 12th, with Portugal's Carlos Sousa ninth in his Mitsubishi L200 Strakar after seven days of this 19-day rally hosted in five countries.

Jean-Pierre Fontenay and Gilles Picard.
Photo by Mitsubishi Motors Corporation.

Today's stage, in cooler but sunny 15 degree temperatures, took the competitors to the southern tip of Tunisia and tested driver skill and navigational ability to the absolute limit. A seemingly endless succession of Ergs (sand dune 'mountains') and dune belts provided a gruelling couple of hours for the crews as they tirelessly wrestled machinery over the terrain, desperate not to get bogged down in soft sand that can so often swallow cars up to their axles. At the end of the stage, which finished near the border crossing into Libya, the crews completed customs formalities before driving a short 37 kilometre liaison section to Ghadames, described as the Pearl of the Desert. The town, an important stopover for travellers crossing the Sahara, used to be a centre for the slave and ivory trade, however its income is now derived from camel breeding and agriculture. Narrow streets bustle with men, while women freely wander the rooftops, moving from terrace to terrace as they go about daily business.

St?phane Peterhansel and Jean-Paul Cottret started the day 55 seconds adrift of Mitsubishi team-mate Hiroshi Masuoka, however the soft sand and lack of landmarks did nothing to hamper the French crew. Aided by GPS satellite navigation points, the six-time bike winner powered his Pajero Evolution / Montero Evolution into first place, fastest on the stage by one minute and 44 seconds. Having reclaimed the overall lead, the pair hold a 49 second advantage over Masuoka.

"It was a very good stage for us today", said Peterhansel. "The beginning was very fast and then we crossed a few dunes. It was not very difficult and we managed to catch Hiroshi. The Mitsubishi engineers have worked hard to develop the car and the team is now benefiting from this. The engine has a lot of torque and this is excellent for the soft sand. I am surprised we have a good lead but there is still a long way to go. We start first on the road tomorrow and I must get my tactics right for the marathon stage".

Peterhansel and Masuoka were in a league of their own, the Japanese defending Dakar winner finishing second on the stage and nearly three minutes ahead of nearest rival Gr?goire de Mevius, such is the superiority of Mitsubishi's desert machinery. The situation is much the same in the overall standings, with Masuoka holding almost a 15 minute advantage over the Belgian BMW X5 driver.

"Now we are working to a 'system'", admitted Masuoka's co-driver Andreas Schultz. "It is tactical between St?phane and us to see who is first on the road. Today he catches us; maybe tomorrow we make no mistakes and will catch him. Hiroshi and I prefer to be second on the road; it gives us a better chance of winning the marathon stage, but there is no point taking risks with no mechanics at the end of the leg".

Former World Rally Champion "Miki" Biasion celebrated his 45th birthday with sixth place on the stage, consolidating his fifth position in his classic Mitsubishi Pajero / Montero.

"We're happy so far", commented the Italian, co-driven by Tiziano Siviero. "Our priority is to finish this rally and at the moment we are competitive without taking risks. After two or three more days maybe we know more about the overall situation and will adjust our tactics. Our ambition is to have the car in perfect condition for the last week of the event".

Jean-Pierre Fontenay was the first of the Mitsubishi crews to hit problems and both he and fellow countryman Thierry Magnaldi (Honda) lost time in the soft sand. Fontenay drops from seventh to 12th as a result. Carlos Sousa, the Portuguese driver in the Mitsubishi L200 Strakar, is nevertheless upholding Mitsubishi honours and holds ninth at the conclusion of today's stage.

Behind Fontenay, Jos?-Luis Monterde has climbed two places and into 13th position in his Pajero / Montero. The Spaniard, who was third overall in the 2002 Baja Spain and Master Rally, is just over a minute ahead of the Schlesser-Ford of Josep-Maria Servia.

Frenchman Jean-Fran?ois Guinot (Mitsubishi Challenger) was 24th on the stage, while Poland's Lukasz Komornicki (Pajero / Montero) was four minutes adrift in 27th position. They hold 19th and 20th positions respectively, despite Komornicki collecting a 10 minute penalty for a servicing infringement. Unfortunately the Pole has been plagued with problems from the outset. The gearbox and clutch had caused concern in Spain and he was forced to complete the Tunis to Tozeur stage in fourth gear. "We arranged for a new gearbox to be flown to Tunisia and it was fitted in Tozeur", he said. "But then we lost all the oil again yesterday and I'm worried it could be the start of another transmission problem, and we don't have another gearbox".

Andrea Mayer was enjoying her first Dakar in the Mitsubishi, but the German was lucky to start today's section. "We had no problems on the stage yesterday, everything was going fine", she said. "But I started to lose power on the road section to the bivouac and then there was this cloud of white smoke. It was obvious that something was seriously wrong with the engine or turbo. We stopped and Klever Kolberg (also Mitsubishi) stopped to check we were okay. Fortunately it wasn't too far to the bivouac and we managed to restart the engine and struggle to the service. The mechanics changed the turbo, but we will have to wait and see if there has been any permanent damage to the engine; that is the real danger".

Mitsubishi Ralliart bivouac.
Photo by Mitsubishi Motors Corporation.

Of the leading crews, BMW's Luc Alphand wrecked the front suspension on his X5 on the run into El Borma last night and the Frenchman dropped seven hours and started today's stage in a disappointing 118th position. Nissan's Thierry Delavergne also ruined his chances of winning this year's Dakar when he too had front suspension problems. He started 117th this morning. The first major casualty of the rally was Dieter Depping, the German destroying his Volkswagen Tarek after a high-speed accident yesterday. Defending World Champion Jean-Louis Schlesser's Ford-engined Buggy was struck by electrical problems 68 kms into today's stage. Schlesser, twice a winner of the Dakar Rally, tried in vain to rectify the problem, but to no avail and even team mate Josep-Maria Servia could do nothing. He lost further time awaiting the service truck. His retirement from the rally was confirmed later as he returned to El Borma after the engine expired.

While many will be relieved to have survived their first day in the dunes, the prospect of tomorrow's route (Wednesday) is yet more daunting. The first of five stages in Libya, from Ghadames to Ghat, is a marathon 584 kilometre stage and considered to be one of the best in the 2003 Telef?nica Dakar Rally. Peak fitness and ultimately prepared machinery are required as the assistance vehicles - with the exception of those actually competing - are not permitted at the Ghat overnight bivouac. All other support and management vehicles head directly to Sabha, location of Thursday's overnight halt. The first 300 kilometres of the longest stage of the rally are fast and varied and take the crews to the Awbari Erg, last crossed during the 1989 Dakar. Fifty kilometres of giant dunes, magnificent in their shape and sheer enormity, follow and finding the right route through massive Ergs will be no mean feat. Superb landscapes, including canyons and vast expanses of sand, then take the crews toward Ghat, providing one of the most varied stages of the rally.


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About this article
Series Dakar
Drivers Luc Alphand , Jean-Louis Schlesser , Dieter Depping , Hiroshi Masuoka , Jean-Paul Cottret , Jean-Pierre Fontenay , Gilles Picard , Carlos Sousa , Klever Kolberg , Andrea Mayer , Josep-Maria Servia , Lukasz Komornicki , Thierry Magnaldi