Bisha, Saudi Arabia—Defending champion Carlos Sainz won the first stage of the Dakar Rally on Sunday in Saudi Arabia with the kingdom hosting motorsport’s most punishing event for the second year since its move from South America.
The Spaniard, a three-time Dakar winner, covered the 277km special between Jeddah and Bisha in his Mini Buggy in 3hr 18min 56sec.
Sainz, whose son Carlos drives for Ferrari in Formula One, finished 25sec ahead of French teammate Stephane Peterhansel after a gripping see-saw battle which record 13-time champion Peterhansel appeared to have won until Sainz stormed home to deny his celebrated rival.
“We spent lots of time in the midst of the vegetation, with bushes, tight corners,” said Peterhansel, who counts seven auto titles in his collection of Dakar triumphs.
“We knew the bodywork would be in pretty poor shape by this evening, but when you want to be fast, you can’t drive too conservatively.
Czech Martin Prokop (Ford) completed the first day’s car podium.
While Sainz leads Peterhansel by eight seconds in the fledgling standings, for another luminary of the rally world the 2021 Dakar had barely begun before it was all but over.
Nine-time world rally champion Sebastien Loeb trails by more than 24 minutes after a day to forget.
“I’ve rarely had such a terrible stage,” the Frenchman lamented, after three punctures.
Nasser Al-Attiyah, the three-time winner from Qatar, was in 10th place, 12 minutes behind Sainz.
“We decided to win the prologue, and we expected to lose time opening the road today,” said the 50-year-old.
“Tomorrow’s stage is what really matters. I’m really happy with how it went because we made no mistakes.”
In the motorbike category Australian Toby Price began his quest for a third crown in style, taking the first stage honours by more than half a minute from Argentine Kevin Benavides (Honda) and his KTM teammate, Matthias Walkner of Austria.
But the opening day proved tough going for reigning champion Ricky Brabec, Honda’s American rider who trailed in almost 20 minutes behind Price after losing his way in the early part of the 277km special.
Monday’s second stage sees competitors covering 685km, including a 457km special, between Bisha and Wadi Ad-Dawasir featuring the first taste of racing in dunes.
Launched in 1979 between Paris and the Senegalese capital Dakar, the celebrated endurance challenge moved to Saudi Arabia for the first time last year after a decade in South America, sparking angry reaction from human rights organisations who accused the kingdom of ‘sports-washing’.
The rally concludes back in Jeddah on January 15.