Dakar Rally 2020
Minis take charge on first day of Dakar Rally
Punctures afflict the SA-built Toyotas as top three places are taken by Minis
Lithuanian Vaidotas Zala was the surprise winner of the first stage of this year's Dakar Rally on Sunday, the Mini JCW Rally driver ending the day with an advantage of two minutes and 14 seconds over France's 13-times winner Stephane Peterhansel, in a Mini JCW Buggy.
The stage win was a career first for Zala.
Spaniard Carlos Sainz, the 2018 winner, completed a Mini 1-2-3, while defending champion Nasser al-Attiyah of Qatar was fourth for Toyota.
“We briefly went the wrong way after a waypoint and then picked up a puncture later on,” said Sainz.
Al-Attiyah was quick from the start and led for 200km, before he was slowed by three punctures in the closing part of the stage.
Double Formula One world champion Fernando Alonso made a solid Dakar Rally debut in Saudi Arabia and was 11th after the first 752km coastal stage from the port city of Jeddah to Al Wajh.
Spaniard Alonso, who left Formula One at the end of 2018, with his seat at McLaren taken by Sainz's son and namesake, was 15 minutes and 27 seconds off the pace in his SA-built Toyota Hilux.
The two-times Le Mans 24 Hours winner has said the Dakar represents his toughest challenge to date and his main aim is to get to the finish in Qiddiya on January 17.
“I don't want to ... quit after the second or third day because of a stupid mistake,” the 38-year-old said before the start. “I have to approach it with a certain calmness.”
Toyota's Giniel de Villiers and Spanish co-driver Alex Haro suffered four punctures during the stage and had to stop three times to change wheels. The final puncture was a slow leak and the pair managed to make their way to the finish after inflating the tyre using the manual on-board inflation system. They ended the day in 14th place, some 23 min 16 sec behind the leaders.
“It was a nervous end to the stage, as we had no spares left,” said the South African. “The fact that I was under the weather didn’t help either.”
Australian Toby Price, the reigning motorcycle champion for KTM, started where he finished the 2019 event, with a stage win, but only a five-second advantage over American Ricky Brabec on a Honda, after a two-minute penalty.
SA's Aaron Mare finished 36th out of 139 riders in the motorcycle category.
Russian Anton Shibalov, driving a Kamaz, led the truck category.
Three-times Le Mans winner Romain Dumas saw his Dakar dreams go up in smoke when his Peugeot caught fire 65km into the special stage, forcing the Frenchman's retirement.
This year's Dakar is held for the first time in the Middle East, with the event moving from South America a decade after it left Saharan Africa for security reasons.
The 2020 Dakar Rally consists of twelve stages, with the route following roughly 7,500km from Jeddah to Al-Quiddia, via the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh, where the competitors will have a rest day.