Dakar Rally : Mitsubishi Motors - Leg 1
Team Repsol Mitsubishi Ralliart began the defence of its Dakar Rally title by holding a cautious seventh, eighth, 10th and 17th positions after the tricky opening 117km special stage of the event between Lisbon and Portimao in Portugal
A crowd of around 1,500 people gathered outside the Belém Cultural Centre on Saturday morning to witness the start of the 29th running of the world's most famous off-road event. The bumper bike entry managed to leave the start in relatively clear conditions, but fog from the Tagus river enveloped competitors soon afterwards and the majority of the leading cars left in foggy conditions and poor visibility.
Joan 'Nani' Roma, making his return to active competition with new co-driver Lucas Cruz, was the leading Mitsubishi driver after the opening stage in a troublefree seventh position, albeit 4m 53s behind the early leaders Carlos Sousa and Andreas Schulz.
Twice former winners Stéphane Peterhansel and Jean-Paul Cottret recorded a time 24 seconds slower than their team mates in a second Mitsubishi Pajero/Montero Evolution and held eighth place, while Japan's Hiroshi Masuoka and Frenchman Pascal Maimon were classified in 10th overall.
"I had a puncture," said Masuoka. "But the stage was very difficult. It was tight, twisty and there were a lot of tree stumps where it was easy to damage the car. But it is still very early. There is a long way to go.
Defending champions Luc Alphand and Gilles Picard were the first crew into the opening stage and that was always going to be a disadvantage for the French duo. But their cause was not helped when they collected a puncture and were not able to stop and make a change.
"I knew that the pace would be high on the rally this year," admitted 17th-placed Alphand. "So we need to keep in touch without taking any risks. I want to make a proper race and that means being very clean through the next stage in Europe. The margin of error is getting smaller all the time as the pace increases. We saw last year there were accidents for me, for Carlos and for 'Nani' on rallies, so this must be taken into account."
MMSP's Managing and Sporting Director Dominique Serieys was a little disappointed with the result of the day and openly congratulated his rivals on their performance. "Maybe we underestimated the pace at the front of the field today," said Serieys. "'Nani' is nearly five minutes behind the leader and that is something we need to address.
"We will up the pace a little, because we do not want to leave too much work for Africa and Mauritania in particular. I take my hat off to Volkswagen today. They did a good job and it just emphasises that we will have quite a fight on our hands to retain the title. One big positive is that there were no mechanical problems with any of our cars and this is a major bonus."
"The impact of the recent route changes will not be too strong," added Serieys. "The ASO made a good decision after discussions with the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We must not just consider the professional teams, but also the amateur teams at the back of the field. These changes came with Mitsubishi's total approval. We will slightly change our strategy after this, but the tough stages will not necessarily be in this area. We must also remember that no one has ever won the Dakar on the first two or three stages. You can just lose the Dakar."