Dakar win is 'still open to everyone'

France’s Stephane Peterhansel and Hiroshi Masuoka of Japan are overwhelming favourites to maintain Mitsubishi’s stranglehold on the Dakar Rally when the 28th edition of the race starts here on Saturday.

Peterhansel has clinched the last two to add to his six victories in the motorcycle section while Masuoka was the winner in 2002 and 2003.

“The car has run more than 15 000 kilometres since the beginning of the year and is fully tested,” said Peterhansel.

“That fact makes me confident for Dakar 2006. Nevertheless, the overall win is still open to everyone.”

This year over 500 vehicles will start the race and hope to be still competing when the event ends in the Senegalese capital of Dakar on January 15 after a total of over 9 000km.

Significant changes have been made for the 2006 rally.

The use of GPS has been limited to hand the navigating initiative back to the co-drivers while the motorcycle riders have been limited to 160kmh after the tragedies of the 2005 event which saw Jose Manuel Perez and two-time winner Fabrizio Meoni killed.

David Fretigne of France will hope to dethrone countryman Cyril Despres as motorcycle champion while Chile’s Carlo De Gavardo and Spaniards Isidre Esteve Pujol and Marc Coma, second in 2005, are also likely to be in the shake-up.

Mitsubishi have won seven of the last nine races on four wheels and Masuoka believes the team will be hard to beat again in 2006.

“The car feels perfect,” said the Japanese driver.

“Every year I thought we could not have done more to the car, so it is an astonishing fact that it has been significantly improved again.”

Masuoka also believes that with the influence of GPS significantly reduced, his co-driver Pascal Maimon will have a crucial role to play.

“I am convinced that the work of the co-driver will be vitally important since the use of the GPS is limited this year.
Teaming with Pascal Maimon, with whom I won the Dakar for the first time in 2002, will be good.

“I believe that our rivals will be fast but I have more than a fair chance to win for the third time.”

Also catching the eye in 2006 will be Spain’s Nani Roma, the motorcycle winner in 2004, who was sixth on four wheels last year while Volkswagen, who will be Mitsubishi’s main rivals, place their faith in Germany’s Jutta Kleinschmidt, the 2001 champion, and Frenchman Bruno Saby, the winner in 1993.

The German manufacturer also has South Africa’s Giniel De Villiers, fourth last time, as well as Spain’s Carlos Sainz, a former double world rally champion, who is making his Dakar debut.

France’s Jean-Louis Schlesser (Schlesser-Ford), the winner in 1999 and 2000, also returns as does Japan’s Kenjiro Shinozuka (Nissan), the 1997 champion, who will retire at the end of the rally.

The race will cross Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Mauritania, Mali, Guinea and Senegal. - Sapa-AFP

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