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20th PARIS-GRANADA-DAKAR RALLY
GAO,
Sunday, January 11, 1998


-- MITSUBISHI EMERGES FROM SAHARA HOLDING TOP FOUR PLACES IN PARIS-DAKAR --

After some of the toughest stages in the Sahara Desert, three Mitsubishi Pajeros and a Challenger controlled the top four positions overall as the surviving competitors, less than half of the original 349 remaining, enjoyed a rare day of rest by the mighty River Niger at Gao, Mali. Mitsubishis were also dominating the T1 class for near-standard cars, with Pajeros holding the top five positions.

French pair Jean-Pierre Fontenay and Gilles Picard led the event in their Team Off Road Express Mitsubishi Ralliart Pajero, with a slim 10m 42s margin over French team mates Bruno Saby and Dominique Serieys in their Team PIAA Mitsubishi Ralliart Pajero after 10 days of hectic competitive driving in Europe and Africa.

Said Fontenay at Gao: "Wow it was hard! The sand was very soft and the camel grass gave the suspension a pounding. Although we are leading it is too hard to tell if we can hang on. There are some very hard stages still to come, including two more marathons."

Saby signalled his intentions by stating: "It was a very difficult three days through some very remote areas where we worried what would happen to us if we got stuck. But Jean-Pierre better watch out - we want to win!"

Japanese driver Hiroshi Masuoka and his German navigator Andreas Schulz were third in the Team Mitsubishi Oil Ralliart Challenger/Montero Sport, despite losing 40 minutes in Europe at Chateau Lastours, and Japanese ace Kenjiro Shinozuka and his French partner Henri Magne, winners of last years event, were just behind in fourth in the Team Mitsubishi Oil Ralliart Pajero, despite getting stuck in deep Saharan sand on one stage for over an hour.

Masuoka reported: "It was one of the worst stages I have ever seen. We were lucky, though, and didn't get stuck. Some dunes were 30 metres high! The second half of the rally will be exciting."

Shinozuka added: "We only got stuck in the sand twice, but once it was for over an hour and a half. It was hard digging all and I could feel time slipping away. I think there is still a long way to go. This is the hardest rally of all, and sometimes experience wins."

Although Mitsubishi's dominance of the event seemed inevitable at the half way point, it did not look that way at the start in Paris. The three Mitsubishi Pajeros faced stiff opposition from the buggies driven by legendary desert expert Jean-Louis Schlesser and one of the best lady drivers ever to take part in the "Dakar", the increasingly competitive Jutta Kleinschmidt. Furthermore, there were a pair of Protrucks coming from USA which looked very competitive before the start, one driven by multiple "Dakar" winner Pierre Lartigue, plus a raft of Nissans and Toyotas.

However, from the first European stages it became clear that Mitsubishi was aiming to repeat its success of last year as Saby and Serieys blasted into the lead at La Chatre in slimy mud. By the end of the second day at Chateau Lastours, it looked more like a repeat performance of last year with the three Pajeros heading the field, although Masuoka and Schulz with the Mitsubishi Challenger/Montero Sport had to contend with a suspension problem and a fire which lost them 40 minutes.

Still, Europe was said to be no indication of how the event would fare in Africa, these were only spectator stages and most felt that the results there would bear little relevance to the final result. But the Mitsubishis kept on winning as the rally forged south over rocky Moroccan terrain. Masuoka won the first African leg from Nador in the north to Er Rachidia, but Saby remained in the lead despite two punctures. By the time they reached Ouarzazate, Shinozuka had scored his first stage win.

At Smara, the final halt in Morocco, Saby was still comfortably in the lead, but Fontenay was quickly catching up having become the fourth of the top Mitsubishi drivers to score a stage win. The weather was continuing to improve; from the rain and cold of Europe, the mist and drizzle of northern Morocco, to the hazy sunshine and summer-like temperatures of southern Morocco. But a surprise was awaiting them as they entered the Sahara Desert in Mauritania for the first time.

The Harmattan, a cold, blustering Saharan winter wind, hit the rally with unrelenting force. Although, temperatures still reached 25 degrees Celsius during the day, great desert sand storms blew up making the ancient trading route between Morocco and Timbuktu particularly hazardous. It was on this section that the leaderboard started to change.

Shinozuka arrived at the iron ore mining town of Zouerat celebrating a second stage victory despite gearbox difficulties, while Fontenay, full of praise for his new navigator Picard stole the lead from Saby who had lost time with gearbox problems, too.

From Zouerat the remaining crews embarked on a three day marathon stage to Gao. No airborne assistance or parts would be allowed, and the drivers and navigators would have to fend for themselves with whatever parts could be retrieved from the competing trucks that arrived late in the night at the bivouacs.

The endless seas of sand dunes were the biggest hazard and almost a third of the field became stuck for hours on end in deep sand. Fontenay praised his Pajero as "The toughest car in the world!" when he arrived in the lead at El Mreiti despite a puncture. Saby had two punctures, and had to drive carefully for much of the leg without a spare, while Shinozuka was unlucky enough to get stuck in the sand, and dropped to fourth.

Kleinschmidt forced her Schlesser's buggy into third place to challenge the Mitsubishi contingent, but her attack was short-lived as she hit engine problems early in the second marathon leg. Masuoka moved into third at Taoudenni and Shinozuka up into fourth, and Mitsubishi's dominance was complete with the three Pajeros and the Challenger holding the top four places.

The several problems with Malian bandits who stole a truck just outside Taoudenni, and the fact that nearly two thirds of the remaining competitors were running nearly a day late, the organisers wisely neutralised the final first week leg from Taoudenni to Gao, leaving Mitsubishi in full control of the standings across most categories at the half way halt in the pleasant Malian market town.

As well as celebrating Masuoka's success, the Team Mitsubishi International outfit was enjoying success across the board with a range of private entrants, as well as totally dominating the T1 category, the class for near-standard vehicles.

Spaniards Prieto and Gil reached their target of getting to Gao in the top 10 by clinching ninth place in their Mitsubishi Montero, while Frenchmen Jean-Pierre Strugo and Bruno Cattarelli headed an impressive five car Mitsubishi contingent in the standard class, T1, in their Mitsubishi Pajero.

Strugo commented: "The first day of the marathon was a catastrophe for us when we got lost and stuck four times. Luckily we had a one hour lead and everything went well on the second day and we made up time again. It was very hard. I have done 13 Dakars and every three or four years they give us a stage like this!"

French world ski champion Luc Alphand was also enjoying his first Dakar, revealing: "We drove for 2100 km in third gear - it was the only gear we had! I cannot believe how strong

the Mitsubishi Pajero is to have survived. To be honest, I am surprised to get this far, but now I am hoping to get to Dakar."

Gilbert Versino was still going well in the Mitsubishi FR415 4WD-RS truck, although he lost the lead during the marathon section when he crashed down a dune on the second day of the marathon section and broke the steering.

There are still seven legs to go with a total of 3299 km including 2854 km of special stages. The surviving crews will arrive in Dakar on Sunday, January 18, 1998.



GENERAL CLASSIFICATION at GAO

1.J.P.FONTENAY / G. PICARD MITSUBISHI Pajero 29:25:45 T2
2.B.SABY / D. SERIEYS MITSUBISHI Pajero +00:10:42 T2
3.H.MASUOKA / A. SCHULZ MITSUBISHI Challenger +01:41:09 T2
4.K.SHINOZUKA / H.MAGNE MITSUBISHI Pajero +01:43:22 T2
5.J.L.SCHLESSER / A.C. PAUWELS BUGGY Original +03:39:31 T3
6.P.ALLIOT / J. DUBOIS NISSAN +05:17:30 T3
7.T.DE LAVERGNE / L. ARGUELLES NISSAN +06:33:52 T3
8.D.HOUSIEAUX / M. DOMINELLA NISSAN +06:44:33 T3
9.M.PRIETO / F. GIL MITSUBISHI Montero +08:22:05 T2
10.B.HANCIAUX / J. LURQUIN NISSAN +09:08:33 T3
11.S.SERVIA / W. ALCARAZ NISSAN +10:09:56 T2
12.JP.STRUGO / B. CATARELLI MITSUBISHI Pajero +10:18:44 T1
13.R.VILA ALTIMIR/E. GONZALES CARPI MITSUBISHI Montero +11:02:49 T1
14.S.QUANDT / P. TIEFFENBACH MITSUBISHI Pajero +12:05:26 T1
15.C.SOUZA / P. REY MITSUBISHI Strada +12:06:00 T3
16.B.ANQUETIL / J. MORIZE NISSAN +12:07:06 T3
17.B.TEN HARKEL / H. DEN TOOM MITSUBISHI Pajero +12:08:26 T1
18.K.KOLBERG / P. LARROQUE MITSUBISHI Pajero +12:48:18 T1
19.T.ASAGA / H. ITO TOYOTA +14:12:38 T1
H.DE ROISSARD / T. CHATIN MITSUBISHI Pajero +14:36:31 T2
21.M.PLAZA PEREZ / A. AMOR CAMPO MITSUBISHI Montero +14:43:58 T1
...      
27.L.ALPHAND / A. DEBRON MITSUBISHI Pajero +18:14:38 T3
41.G. MARCY / C. GHAEM MITSUBISHI Pajero +30:13:31 T2
45.E.SMULEVICI / J. FALAISE MITSUBISHI L200 +40:06:32 T3
46.J.HARDY / F. BECART MITSUBISHI Pajero +41:55:39 T1
55.M.TOMOKAWA / A. ASADA MITSUBISHI Pajero +41:55:39 T1


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Copyright 1997 by Mitsubishi Motors Corporation.