Mini swept the top three places in a surprise-filled opening stage of the Dakar Rally.
Vaidotas Zala (pictured) navigated the pitfalls of the opening special the best to spring a surprise with his first career stage win on the 198-mile route through the dunes from Jeddah to Al Wajh. The 32-year-old Lithuanian, racing in his fifth Dakar, became the event’s first overall leader by two minutes over X-Raid Mini teammate and Dakar legend Stephane Peterhansel, who lost time to some communication breakdowns with new co-driver Paulo Fiuza.
“We wandered around a bit and must have lost three to five minutes looking for a hidden waypoint. The directions were hard to understand in English… I must be going soft in the head,” admitted Peterhansel, a 13-time winner of this event. “In 21 editions of the Dakar, I’ve never had a co-driver talk to me in English, so I need to get used to it. There were dunes, sandy plateaus and rocky sectors where we had to walk on eggshells. We’re good at adapting to these conditions, we’re nimble!”
Carlos Sainz — the rally legend and father of F1 driver Carlos Jr. — completed the Mini sweep in third place, 2m50s behind. Meanwhile, defending champion Nasser Al-Attiyah overcame three punctures in the latter portion of the stage to place fourth for Toyota, limiting the damage to just over five minutes.
F1 and Le Mans champion Fernando Alonso’s Dakar debut went smoothly, the Spaniard just missing out on a top-10 finish with his Toyota, some 15 minutes off the leader’s pace. However, the rally is already over for Pikes Peak winner Romain Dumas, who was forced to withdraw after his car caught fire some 40 miles into the stage.
UP NEXT: Tomorrow’s Stage 2 takes the Dakar contenders from Al Wajh to Neom, a distance of some 228 miles.