SANTA ROSA, Argentina (AFP) — Qatar's Nasser Al-Attiyah, driving a BMW, clinched the opening stage of the 2009 Dakar Rally on Saturday as defending champions Mitsubishi struggled.
Al-Attiyah, the reigning world rally-raid champion, dominated the 371km special stage from Buenos Aires, winning in a time of 2hr 36min 15sec.
Volkswagen filled the next three places with former world rally champion Carlos Sainz (2min 17sec off the pace) taking second, South Africa's Giniel De Villiers (2:40) in third and Mark Miller of the United States (4:21) in fourth.
"I'm delighted to start with a stage victory. It was a fairly easy route, but still quite fast. However, it didn't feel like I had to push it to the limit during the race," said Al-Attiyah.
"I wanted to control my speed, especially in the part where we overtook plenty of bikes, because there was a lot of dust.
"It was a satisfying day, because I see that I've finished 2.17 in front of Carlos. This proves that the car, which is totally different from last year, with a new chassis, is performing excellently."
Sainz, who won the Rally of Argentina twice, admitted the dust was a problem.
"After 110km, already I was catching up with the bikes. It was difficult to overtake because of the dust. All I saw was dust for 250 kilometres," said the Spaniard. "There was so much that I didn't even see the Pampas."
Luc Alphand, the 2006 champion, was the best-placed Mitsubishi driver in fifth place (4:44) while his French compatriot, and defending champion Stephane Peterhansel, was sixth (4:54).
Peterhansel is bidding for a 10th crown to add to his six on a motorcycle and three in a car. He won the Dakar in 2007, the last time the gruelling event was staged.
But the 2008 edition was cancelled at the last moment after the murder of four French tourists in Mauritania by Al-Qaeda-linked terrorists, an act that prompted race organisers to switch the Dakar to Argentina and Chile, 7,000km away from the Senegalese capital.
Japan's Hiroshi Masuoka, the 2002 and 2003 champion, endured a miserable opening day after experiencing engine problems with his Mitsubishi.
Spain's Marc Coma of KTM won the opening motorcycle stage while fellow KTM rider Cyril Despres, who won the event in 2005 and 2007, lost 41min 18sec on his rival after suffering a puncture.
"The problem with this special was the distance," said Coma. "I paced myself, waiting for the moment. On this route, there was little work to do with the bike, so I tried to ride my race to avoid problems.
"I saw that Despres had problems with his back wheel after filling up at control point two. After that, I tried to open up the gap."
This year's race, which ends in Buenos Aires on January 17, features 540 competitors from 50 countries and covers 9,000 kilometres spread over 13 stages - three in Chile and 10 in Argentina.
Sunday's second stage runs from Santa Rosa to Puerto Madryn with a 237km special.
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