Portugal's Carlos Sousa, driving a Chinese-built Haval, claimed the opening stage of the 36th Dakar Rally on Sunday, as double defending champion Stephane Peterhansel (Mini) came in sixth after suffering a puncture - and almost all the South Africans lost time on a disastrous first stage.
The sole exception was Dakar rookie Leeroy Poulter, who got off to a superb start by coming home in ninth on Day 1 of the world’s longest and toughest motor race, after starting 23rd on the road.
He was fastest to the first control point of the 180km special stage, but then lost time when he got stuck in the dust behind slower cars.
Team leader Giniel de Villiers in the other works Toyota Hilux V8 bakkie started third, only to drop back to 27th on the opening timed section, a tight and technical racing stage not unlike a South African cross country event, when he experienced power steering problems as a result of a leaking fitting on the hydraulic jack, which uses the same lubricating system.
He lost almost 16 minutes, stopping three times to top up the fluid, and eventually drove the final 50km without power steering after using all the spare brake fluid and oil on board.
De Villiers said later: ”It was the worst possible stage to experience power steering problems, very tight and technical, and it was almost impossible to drive for the last 50km.
"But the 2014 Hilux has a new V8 engine, a new chassis with a lower centre of gravity and it's also lighter. We are much closer to where we need to be.
"In my opinion there is only one favorite, Peterhansel! And he can count on some very quick team-mates. I am also very wary of the buggy of Carlos Sainz; we can't match their pace on the off-road sections."
180KM TIMED SECTION
Lucio Alvarez in the first of the SA-built Team Ford Rangers had problems with the bakkie’s throttle body 100km into the 180km timed section and had to replace it before he could continue, which cost him about two hours, while Chris Visser was running as high as ninth at the stage's first waypoint, just 43 seconds behind the leader, until the wheel nuts sheared off the front right hub, and had to wait for the team's T4 race truck to arrive to repair it. He came in a daunting 4 hours 34min38 behind the front-runners.
Nevertheless, Alvarez was upbeat: "It was a long job but it was worth it, and although we lost a lot of time we were able to finish the stage."
Sousa finished the 180km special from Rosario to San Luis in 2hours 20min36 with Argentina's Orlando Terranova, in a Mini, 11 seconds behind and fellow Mini driver, Qatar's 2011 champion Nasser Al-Attiyah, in third, 47 seconds back.
Al–Attiyah said: "It was a good day for us, a beautiful stage in which we didn't take too many risks. I caught up with Stephane Peterhansel towards the end, he let me through and I think we ended up posting a good time."
Peterhansel, looking for his 12th overall title (after six on motorcycles and five in cars), suffered a puncture and was down in sixth place, 4min 21sec behind Sousa.
The Frenchman’s victory in 2013 was his 11th in the Dakar, five coming behind the wheel of a car, most recently a Mini, and six between 1991-98 on a Yamaha motorcycle.
But the 48-year-old insisted there were “at least five competitors who could win the Dakar (car section) this year”.
“Three of them are in my team,” Peterhansel said, referring to 2011 winner Nasser al-Attiyah from Qatar, Spaniard Nani Roma (motorcycle winner in 2004 and second in the car section in 2012) and Argentina's Orlando Terranova.
South African Giniel de Villiers, three times a runner-up in his Toyota, and Spain's double World Rally Champion Carlos Sainz would also be contenders, Peterhansel said.
“The first difficulty will be the route, which is longer and more intense,” he said.
The 13-stage race, with a single rest day, is 9374 kilometres long for cars, with more than 5500km of timed “special sections”.
1 Carlos Sousa (Portugal) Haval - 2h 20min36
2 Orlando Terranova (Argentina) Mini +11sec
3 Nasser Al-Attiyah (Qatar) Mini +47
4 Nani Roma (Italy) Mini +1min15
5 Carlos Sainz (Spain) Buggy SMG +4min03
6 Stephane Peterhansel (France) Mini +4min21
7 Krzysztof Holowczyc (Poland) Mini +4min21
8 Christian Lavieille (France) Haval ) +5min42
9 Leeroy Poulter (South Africa) Toyota +5min57
10 Erik Van Loon (Netherlands) Ford +6min02
27 Giniel de Villiers (South Africa) Toyota +15min57
49 Thomas Rundle (South Africa) Toyota +31min07
130 Lucio Alvarez (Argentina) Ford +2h 05min08
141 Chris Visser (South Africa) Ford +5h 34min38
Honda's Joan Barreda clocked a time of 2 hours 25min31 to take the motorcycle stage with Spanish compatriot Marc Coma, on a KTM, 37 seconds behind.
Frenchman Cyril Despres, the defending champion and seeking a sixth career title, came in third, 1min 40sec off the leader.
Barreda said: "At the beginning I had some trouble easing into the race due to a slight problem with the suspension, but afterwards everything went smoothly.
"We'll work on it to ride even faster tomorrow. I'll try to keep up this pace in the next few stages."
Despres, the champion in 2005, 2007, 2010, 2012 and 2013, 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.”
"180km of this was a great way to get the ball rolling,” he 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."
1 Joan Barreda (Spain) Honda - 02h 25 min31
2 Marc Coma (Spain) KTM +37sec
3 Cyril Despres (France) Yamaha +1min40
4 Alain Duclos (France) Sherco +1min56
5 Paulo Goncalves (Portugal) Honda +2min25
6 Francisco Lopez (Chile) KTM +3min24
7 Juan Pedrero (Spain) Sherco +3min47
8 Michael Metge (France) Yamaha +4min33
9 Sam Sunderland (Britain) Honda +4min33
10 Alessandro Botturi (Italy) Speedbrain +4min48
27 Riaan van Niekerk (South Africa) KTM +11min14
65 Brett Cummings (South Africa) KTM +27min23
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 along the way with fears over the impact of the race on the world's highest salt flats at Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, despite only the motorcycles being allowed to cross into the country.
In Chile, concerns have been raised over possible damage caused by the vehicles roaring over the Inca Trail.
After another early start on Monday’s Stage 2 from San Luis to San Rafael, the competitors face a 304km liaison section before the 433km special stage. This is the fastest special stage of the rally, and the first one where they’ll face the notorious dunes.
The final 100km of the timed section will be across the grey dunes of Nihuil. The sand is firmer than in the Atacama desert, but this stage will provide a real insight into each competitors’ technical skills.
The stage ends with a 62km liaison to the bivouac in San Rafael. – AFP