Morocco : Mitsubishi Motors - Leg 1
The Repsol Mitsubishi Ralliart Team held fourth, fifth and sixth positions after the heavily-revised opening leg of this year's Orpi Rally of Morocco, round three of the 2006 FIA Cross-Country Rally World Cup, around the town of Erfoud
in eastern Morocco, today (Wednesday).
The day's special had been planned as a 266 kms loop around Erfoud, using a brand new section and several pistes last used in 2003. The plan had been to use the dune crossings at Merzouga and the famous erg Chebbi – used by both Mitsubishi and Volkswagen in crucial mid-season test sessions. But rainfall had been so torrential in recent days that a nearby hotel had been washed away and what was normally a desert area had been reduced to large pools of flood water.
The official FIA course opening car was joined by a secondary team to complete the final recce and the organising NPO staff decided to run two shorter 137 km loop stages instead of the single special. This special used opening terrain familiar to competitors from previous test sessions in the region and a completely new final stretch.
Japan's Hiroshi Masuoka and French co-driver Pascal Maimon led the Mitsubishi challenge after the opening stage by posting the fourth fastest time, behind South Africa's Giniel de Villiers, Frenchman Jean-Louis Schlesser and Spaniard Carlos Sainz.
The Mitsubishis were markedly quicker on the second loop, with Stéphane Peterhansel and co-driver Jean-Paul Cottret leading the way with the third fastest time in their Mitsubishi Pajero/Montero Evolution, behind stage winner Sainz and De Villiers. The twice Dakar winners will start leg two a mere 4m 18s behind the leader.
Peterhansel had been fifth fastest in the opening stage. “At the start of the first loop I lost the road and maybe 20 seconds, but it was a very fast track. I drove a safe special. Only about 10 kms were technical, but the objective on the second loop was to make sure that we did not lose any more time to our rivals.”
Masuoka leads his team mate by 20s at the overnight halt and holds fourth place: “The last 40 km of this stage were flat out and that suited our rivals perhaps,” said Masuoka. “My plan today was to drive safely and stay with the leaders. I thought that my rear suspension may have been a little soft, so this is something we will look at for the second day.”
Spaniard Joan ‘Nani' Roma and Andorra-based co-driver Henri Magne were classified seventh overall after the first loop. “I did not have a good feeling this morning and I was not happy with my driving. Then I noticed that a shock absorber was broken. It was not my day today.” Roma was sixth on the second loop and holds a similar position in the overall standings.
“Today was not easy for us and the Volkswagens and Schlesser did a good job on very fast stages,” said MMSP's Team Director Dominique Serieys. “But there is a long way to go and tomorrow is another day. I am encouraged by the fact that we are safely through this leg and we can look positively ahead to tomorrow.”
Tomorrow (Thursday) should have been the second northerly stage between Erfoud and Ain Benimathar, but freak heavy rains destroyed sections of the original special and left many low-lying areas underwater. Such were the severity of the floods that the FIA course opening car, crewed by multiple former FIA World Champion Pierre Lartigue and Fred Gallagher, was stuck three times during the recce mission, with Gallagher trapped up to his waist in thick mud on one occasion.
“The locals say that they have not seen anything like the recent storms in living memory,” said Masuoka's co-driver Henri Magne, winner of the Rally of Morocco in 2000, 2001 and 2002. “The areas between sand dunes were reduced to lakes. It is incredible.”
An amended special – again split into two sections - has been arranged at the last minute to take teams to Ain Benimathar, one of only two traditional overnight bivouacs on this year's Orpi Rally of Morocco. Co-drivers will be faced with many pages of road book changes to decipher before the second leg starts on Thursday morning.
Press Release Mitsubishi Motors