ASUNCION, Paraguay, Jan 2 – Qatari two-time winner Nasser Al Attiyah overcame a fire in his Toyota to win a dramatic opening stage of the 2017 Dakar Rally on Monday.
Al Attiyah completed the 38.5km special stage in 25min 41sec, the first on a high-octane, high-altitude 8,800km (5,500 mile) continent-crossing trek from Asuncion in Paraguay to Buenos Aires.
“About a dozen kilometres out from the finish we smelt smoke by (co-driver) Matthieu’s (Baumel) seat and there was a bit of a fire. We slowed down to finish the stage and were able to put it out at the finish,” the Toyota driver said after arriving in the Argentinian city of Resistencia.
The Qatari’s teammate Giniel de Villiers had to come to the rescue and tow him away.
Former World Rally Championship driver Xevi Pons was 24sec adrift in his Ford Ranger while fellow Spaniard Nani Roma came in a further 5sec back in his Toyota.
Nine-time world rally champion Sebastien Loeb was 55sec off the pace as he came in sixth while defending champion Stephane Peterhansel was 1min 34sec behind Al Attiyah in 12th.
Peugeot’s Peterhansel is seeking to add to an extraordinary record in the race which comprises six wins apiece in both moto and auto categories.
Frenchman Philippe Croizon, a quadruple amputee who is competing in a specially adapted buggy, finished 10 minutes behind Al Attiyah.
Croizon, 48, lost his limbs after he suffered a massive electric shock while working on a television antenna at his home 22 years ago.
Competitors were watching the skies before the start following days of violent tropical storms in the Paraguayan capital.
Australian KTM motorbike rider and defending champion Toby Price set out first at the start of the two-week rally, which will take participants via Bolivia through unforgiving mountainous terrain.
But the Australian finished the day in 17th position. Yahama’s Xavier de Soultrait clocked the fastest time in the motorbike section before picking up a one-minute penalty for excessive speed which saw the Frenchman demoted to tenth position.
The stage victory went to Spaniard Juan Pedrero Garcia riding a Sherco Tvs.
Riders and drivers must negotiate some 4,000km of special stages before reaching Buenos Aires on January 14.
Five stages will be held at above 3,500 metres altitude — and participants will get a day off on Sunday to see a little of the Bolivian capital La Paz, the world’s highest capital at 3,600m.
The thin conditions of the region will pose a severe endurance challenge.
“There is a little uncertainty as regards the altitude… I don’t really know how we shall react — drivers, co-drivers, but also assistants and mechanics,” said Peterhansel, who started off in 1988, when the race still remained true to its African origins.
“If you feel a little off one day you could lose everything and that’s true for all drivers, even those who have spent time at altitude and are well prepared.”
For Peterhansel, “it’s very open. I’d say there are six or seven drivers capable of winning — at Peugeot of course but also Toyota, and even Mini, with Mikko Hirvonen coming up on the rails”, following his maiden fourth place showing last year.
The real racing gets underway on Tuesday with an 800km stage — including a 275km special — to San Miguel de Tucuman in Argentina with temperatures soaring to 40 degrees celsius.