Everyone expected the motorcycle competition to be wide open, and that is indeed what the classification shows after the opening stage. Joan Barreda posted the fastest time of the day, with no fewer than four different manufacturers in the top four: Marc Coma, Cyril Despres and… Alain Duclos with his Sherco. Meanwhile, Carlos Sousa sprang a surprise by beating the Minis for the stage win in the car category. On the other end of the spectrum, today was a black day for Gordon, Guerlain Chicherit and BJ Baldwin. Mardeev prevailed in the truck category.
What was already a certainty has now been confirmed! Joan Barreda surely deserves his reputation as the fastest rider in the world. The former Husqvarna rider who moved to Honda in the middle of the season inaugurated his 2014 Dakar with an acrobatic performance. The fast, winding courses on the programme of today’s special in the Córdoba area seemed tailor-cut to the Spanish stage hunter, who also used his favourable starting place (no. 3) to his advantage. He inched closer to Marc Coma, who was riding in the slipstream of defending champion Cyril Despres. In the end, Barreda perched himself at the top of the general classification and grabbed the 6th special of his career… Not bad, considering he has taken part in 30.
Looking forward, one could be forgiven for thinking the trio of pre-race favourites, Barreda, Coma and Despres, has left the competition in the dust, with their most commonly cited rivals, Paolo Gonçalves and “Chaleco” López 2′25″ and 3′24″ down, respectively, and Hélder Rodrigues conceding almost 9 minutes to his Honda teammate. However, the Dakar saw its first surprise, as Alain Duclos caught the pundits unaware to finish fourth in today’s stage, a mere 1′56″ slower than Barreda. The French rider had already said before the race that he was confident the changes made to his Sherco since last year would allow him to aim for the top places. Considering Duclos has not raced since the last edition, today’s performance shows his boast was not an empty one.
The fastest quad riders in the field showed why they are the favourites on the same course. Last year’s runner-up Ignacio Casale bolstered his claim to the crown by winning the opening stage. Although his margin is still razor-thin, the Chilean can be proud of beating defending champion Marcos Patronelli by 6″ to add a second Dakar stage win to his booty.
It is never a good idea to judge a driver’s potential before he gets the chance to express himself on the course. On paper, race dynamics and the raw power of the 11 Minis on the start line left little hope for outsiders. And yet the competition fought back with one of the dark horses of the Dakar, who pipped Peterhansel, Al-Attiyah, Sainz and Roma for the stage win. Carlos Sousa, who has been exceptionally consistent since 2001 and has finished nine Dakars in a row in the top 7, took his sixth victory, this time at the wheel of a 4×4 built by the Chinese official Haval manufacturer. His last Dakar win dates from 2007, when the Portuguese rider triumphed in front of his home crowd at the end of a sinuous opening stage in Portimão.
A pleasant surprise for Sousa, but a bitter one for Orlando Terranova, another specialist of the technical courses typical of the Córdoba area. An 11-second deficit on the finish line meant the Argentinean had to settle for second, although he was the fastest driver in the Mini team —a hotly contested subclassification of sorts. Stéphane Peterhansel’s puncture towards the end made him lose some time to Sousa and Terranova, but also to Al-Attiyah (third at +47″), Roma (fourth at 1′15″) and even Carlos Sainz (fifth at 4′03″). With six cars in the top 10, the X-raid Team can be pleased with the results. Things are less rosy for Giniel De Villiers, who had steering problems and lost almost 16 minutes to Sousa in San Luis. Robby Gordon was one of today’s flops after starting the special half an hour behind schedule. The American is set to lose tonnes of time, although perhaps less than the two buggies in Eric Vigouroux’s team, with Guerlain Chicherit and BJ Baldwin at the wheel. They both had to stop less than 20 km from the finish to repair problems with petrol evaporation.
The battle among the trucks was also a lively one. At the end of the 180 km special, only a few minutes separate the big favourites. Mardeev’s Kamaz won this winding stage, while a dubitative start led defending champion Nikolaev to finish fifth, four minutes down. With Loprais, De Rooy and Van Vliet in between the two Russians, the top 5 are separated by less than four minutes.