ASUNCION: 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 (Tuesday in Manila).
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
Earlier, Australian KTM rider and defending champion Toby Price set out at the start of the two-week rally, which will take participants via Bolivia through unforgiving mountainous terrain.
Competitors were watching the skies before the start following days of violent tropical storms in the Paraguayan capital.
Participants swiftly resumed last-minute technical checks after seeing in the New Year ahead of the traditional pre-race briefing Sunday evening.
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 motorbikes section is also looking open coming out of a decade of domination by Frenchman Cyril Despres and Spaniard Marc Coma, five-time winner with KTM and now on board with organisers ASO.
Many eyes will also be on the progress of brave Frenchman Philippe Croizon, a quadruple amputee who will be driving a specially adapted buggy.
Croizon, 48, lost his limbs after he suffered a massive electric shock while working on a television antenna at his home 22 years ago.
Croizon brought out a book, entitled I Decided To Live, and turned to sport, swimming the English Channel six years ago and also completing the Intercontinental Straits Swimming Challenge – crossing four straits separating five continents.
The 2017 race will be the ninth time the Dakar has been held in South America.
The race was cancelled in 2008 over security threats in Mauritania, organisers taking the decision to move the rally to another continent in 2009.