MITSUBISHI'S DAKAR DESTINY RESTS WITH JOAN 'NANI' ROMA
Peterhansel, Alphand and Masuoka retire after punishing first week
VALPARAISO (Chile): Team Repsol Mitsubishi Ralliart's chances of earning an eighth successive victory in the punishing Dakar Rally rest with Joan 'Nani' Roma and Lucas Cruz Senra (both Spain) after a punishing first week's competitive action across Argentina.
Mitsubishi headed to South America with four, new turbo-diesel 'Racing Lancers' and their usual line-up of four experienced drivers and co-drivers. The team had left nothing to chance in the weeks building up to the event, with meticulous physical preparation for the crews and an extensive test and development program with the new car, which had won 'out of the box' in the hands of Stéphane Peterhansel and Jean-Paul Cottret (both France) in the Baja Portalegre.
But the remote Patagonian wastelands of southern Argentina and the treacherous sand dunes of the western Mendoza province were a totally different proposition to the rigours of a test session in North Africa and the opening days of the 2009 Dakar Rally became a rapid learning curve for Team Repsol Mitsubishi Ralliart.
The opening high-speed dash across the pampas netted the team fifth, sixth and eighth positions, with Luc Alphand (France) leading the Mitsubishi charge from Peterhansel and Roma, but Hiroshi Masuoka (Japan) and Pascal Maimon (France) were sidelined with a broken engine pulley.
As a solitary BMW jostled with a trio of Volkswagens for the early overall lead, Peterhansel leapt back into contention with the second fastest time on the run south into Patagonia and the overnight halt at Puerto Madryn. He duly moved up to third overall, with Roma and Alphand nestled into fifth and sixth places. Mitsubishi appeared to have weathered the early storm.
Peterhansel set the fifth fastest time on the tiring westerly sprint across the Patagonian scrubland to the railway town of Ingeniero Jacobacci, where Roma was eighth and the pair held fourth and fifth overall. But Alphand discovered gas-oil leaking from the rear of his 'Racing Lancer' and lost 30 minutes affecting emergency repairs to a fuel pump seal and slipped to 10th place.
But the former Dakar winner was in sensational form on the following morning's run north to Neuquén and stormed through the field from 15th on the road to take the third fastest time and climb to eighth place. Roma and Peterhansel set the fifth and eighth times on the 380km special and confirmed fifth and fourth overall behind a pair of Volkswagens and a solitary BMW.
Peterhansel pushed a little harder on the fifth stage into San Rafaël, where competitors came face-to-face with a series of challenging sand dunes for the first time. He held the initiative early in the stage and could well have taken a stage win, but he descended one sand dune and was heading for the foot of a second one 15 km from the finish, when the Mitsubishi hit a patch of camel-type grass and flipped over.
The impact damaged the car's bodywork and radiator and the Frenchman was towed into the bivouac, the resultant penalty of 15 minutes knocking him down the leader board to sixth place. Alphand and Roma had been seventh and eighth on the stage and remained inside the top 10.
The subsequent sixth stage was shortened because of recent rainfall in the Mendoza province and a river crossing was cancelled, but teams still had to negotiate the same series of sand dunes in reverse. Peterhansel and Roma eventually finished the stage with the fifth and sixth fastest times to hold sixth and fifth in the overall standings, but the Mitsubishi challenge was reduced to just two cars.
Alphand was forced to withdraw 12km after the start, when co-driver Gilles Picard (France) was taken ill assisting Alphand in putting plates under the wheels when they were stuck in a deep muddy swamp. They had been trying to free the 'Racing Lancer' for over 90 minutes.
As a precaution, Picard was airlifted to the bivouac in San Rafaël for medical checks, but Alphand was unable to continue. Picard then underwent an electro-cardiogram test. Everything was in order and the pair travelled with the team to Valparaiso.
Roma and Peterhansel began the shortened seventh stage, near Mendoza, behind a trio of Volkswagens and team director Dominique Serieys (France) issued a battle cry for his remaining two drivers to launch an assault and a serious challenge for the lead over the coming stages.
But Peterhansel's turbo-diesel 'Racing Lancer' sustained a small fire early in the stage and terminal engine damage occurred at the 114km point. The nine-times Dakar winner was sidelined before the passage through the Andes into Chile, although Roma managed to set the fourth fastest time.
He headed into the rest day, adjacent to the Pacific Ocean, in fourth overall, 29m 16s behind Carlos Sainz (Spain) and still within striking distance of the leading Volkswagen trio.
But seven punishing stages are planned for the second week of the 2009 Dakar Rally and Roma and Cruz Senra will have to tackle the rigours of the Atacama desert and the return across the Andes into Argentina without the support of their team mates, Peterhansel, Alphand and Masuoka.
Live footage of the 2009 Dakar Rally can be seen on Eurosport at the following times:
18.05 hrs GMT - 18.30 hrs GMT22.00 hrs GMT - 22.45 hrs GMT
OVERALL CLASSIFICATION AFTER LEG 71. Carlos SAINZ (VOLKSWAGEN RACE TOUAREG - T1.2)- 23:42:40 (**:**)2. Giniel DE VILLIERS (VOLKSWAGEN RACE TOUAREG - T1.2)- 23:42:49 (+0:09)3. Mark MILLER (VOLKSWAGEN RACE TOUAREG - T1.2)- 23:56:33 (+13:53)4. Joan ROMA (MITSUBISHI RACING LANCER - T1.2)- 24:11:56 (+29:16)5. Robby GORDON (HUMMER H3 - OP1)- 24:51:01 (+1:08:21)6. Krzysztof HOLOWCZYC (NISSAN NAVARA - T1.1)- 26:22:12 (+2:39:32)7. Ivar Erik TOLLEFSEN (NISSAN NAVARA - T1.1)- 26:46:01 (+3:03:21)8. Orlando TERRANOVA (BMW X3 CC - T1.2)- 27:47:33 (+4:04:53)9. Dieter DEPPING (VOLKSWAGEN RACE TOUAREG - T1.2)- 28:30:23 (+4:47:43)10. Rene KUIPERS (BMW X3 CC - T1.2)- 28:42:31 (+4:59:51)