Resistencia, Argentina – Toyota's Nasser Al Attiyah stormed through the short 39km timed section on Stage 1 of the 2017 Dakar Rally to post a time of 25m41s, almost half a minute quicker than Spanish driver Xavi Pons’ South African-built South Racing Ford Ranger.
But at the end of the timed section Hilux suffered a small engine fire, apparently caused by an oil leak in the engine compartment. Al-Attiyah and navigator Mathieu Baumel quickly doused the flames but, as a precaution, decided not to start the engine again – so they completed the long liaison section across the border into Argentina at the end of a tow-rope.
"Of course the fire gave us a big scare,” admitted Al-Attiyah, “but in the end all that matters is that we won the stage."
Turned out the problem wasn’t serious, however, and they’ll start stage two as leaders.
Pons, in second, was closely followed by Nani Roma in another SA-built Hilux and Carlos Sainz in the best of the Peugeots, with SA hero Giniel de Villiers fifth in the second Gazoo Racing SA Hilux. Multiple world rally champion Sebastien Loeb – who dominated the early stages in 2016 – could only manage sixth, suggesting a shift in the balance of power this year.
Yazeed Al Rajhi was next in the fastest of the Minis, with Cyril Despres close behind in another Peugeot, while Zimbabwean Toyota driver Conrad Rautenbach (with Leeroy Poulter’s vastly experienced navigator Rob Howie to tell him which way is up) finished 15th on the first stage of his maiden Dakar – which was probably better than he was expecting.
The two-wheelers produced a surprise as unknown French Yamaha rider Xavier de Soultrait pipped Spain's provisional leader, Sherco TVS-mounted Juan Pedrero Garcia, to take the first stage by just two seconds - and then lost the lead by getting bust for speeding on the liaison section!
They were followed by the three Hondas of American Ricky Brabec, French rider Michel Metge and Portugal’s Paolo Goncalves, with Briton Sam Sunderland sixth on the first of the hitherto-unbeatable KTMs. Motorcycle favourite Joan Barreda Bort of Spain, was seventh on another Honda, while defending champion Toby Price, on a KTM, came home 17th, 85 seconds off the pace.
The top South African rider was David Thomas, 44th on his Husqvarna, with Botswana’s Vince Crosbie 69th and South Africans Joey Evans and Walter Terblanche, each on a KTM, 107th and 110th respectively.
Tuesday’s stage two will take the Dakar competitors 802km east across Argentina to San Miguel de Tucamàn, including a 275km timed section.