Portugal’s Carlos Sousa, driving a Haval, claimed the opening stage of the 36th Dakar Rally on Sunday, while double defending champion Stephane Peterhansel lost time after suffering a puncture.
Sousa finished the 180km special from Rosario to San Luis, Argentina, in 2 hours, 20 minutes and 36 seconds. Argentina’s Orlando Terranova was 11 seconds behind in a Mini, while Qatar’s 2011 champion and fellow Mini driver Nasser al-Attiyah was 47 seconds back in third.
Sousa said he “suffered like a dog” after his Chinese-made Haval overheated, sending dirty air into the driver’s compartment.
“Our car doesn’t have air conditioning and all the air inlets got clogged. After 50km, the turbo air outlet broke down and sent all the air directly toward me,” he said. “It must have got hotter than 70oC and we had trouble breathing. The reason I drove so fast was that I wanted to get out of that inferno, but I really thought we wouldn’t make it. We suffered like dogs to earn it.”
France’s Peterhansel, who is also in a Mini and seeking a 12th overall title (after six on motorcycles and five in cars), suffered a puncture and was down in sixth place, 4 minutes, 21 seconds behind Sousa.
“At 30km before the finish, we had a flat tire. Apart from the flat, I had good feelings with the car and the special. True, it wasn’t a great start, since losing 3 minutes in such a short special is nothing to write home about, but it’s a start nonetheless,” Peterhansel said.
Honda’s Joan Barreda clocked a time of 2:25:31 to take the motorcycle stage, with fellow Spaniard Marc Coma 37 seconds back on a KTM.
Defending champion Cyril Despres of France, who is seeking a sixth career title, was in third, 1:40 off the provisional leader.
“I’m really happy with the first stage. At the beginning I had some trouble easing into the race due to a slight problem with the suspension, but afterward everything went smoothly,” Barreda said.
Despres, the champion in 2005, 2007, 2010, 2012 and last year, said it had been an emotional day for him on his debut for Yamaha, having switched from KTM this year.
“I took some time to find my bearings and ease into my pace,” Despres said. “The first special is always tough when you come from cold Europe and you get thrown into the thick of things, so I’m happy to get good feelings.
“I got a bit emotional at the start, what with starting a new adventure... It was a difficult year, with the decision to move to Yamaha and then having to prepare the motorcycle, working with the entire team... So when D-Day comes, it feels good to be racing again,” he added.
This year, 431 vehicles, taking part in the auto, motorbike, quad and lorry events, will cross Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, but they could run into environmental protests fueled by fears over the race’s impact on the world’s highest salt flats at Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, despite only the motorcycles being allowed to cross into the country.
Furthermore, in Chile, concerns have been raised that damage may be caused as the vehicles roar over the Inca Trail.