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Drivers, navigators, team members, technicians and the 1500-strong band of travelling organisers and press gathered today in blistering sunshine and 35 degree Celsius temperatures at Agades today to reflect on the first half of the 1997 Dakar-Agades-Dakar Rally and prepare for the tough second half, which will take them back to their destination at Dakar.
SHINOZUKA HEADS MITSUBISHI 1-2-3-4
IN HOTTEST DAKAR YET
It has been one of the hottest Dakars ever, not only in terms of temperatures, which have been high, but also competition, with only a few minutes covering the top three Mitsubishi Pajeros after over 4,000 km of competition in a total route of 8,518 km. Japanese driver Kenjiro Shinozuka and his French co-driver Henri Magne enjoyed the glory of reaching Agades in first place in their Team Mitsubishi Oil Ralliart Pajero, but as they toured Agades, mingling with the local people who surrounded the Bivouac in their thousands, selling locally made silverware, Agades crosses and leather goods, they knew that the task ahead would not be easy.
Said Shinozuka: "It is very close. I am leading, but just by a very small margin. I will have to fight all the way back to Dakar to win - it is not over by a long way."
Bruno Saby, the French off-road specialists who is co-driven by Dominique Serieys, now third in the Team PIAA Mitsubishi Ralliart Pajero, commented: "It has been one of the toughest Dakar's ever - very hard from the start. This is the way it should be."
From Senegal, everyone knew after the first competitive section the 4th of January, that this Dakar was going to be very different. Tight, twisty tracks between trees and through the undergrowth of the savannah-like countryside tested the competitors to the limit from the start. Dust was a major problem for all except the leading motorbike, and it was all but impossible to pass other competitors. Navigation was difficult, but the uncharacteristically dull weather at least spared them the problems of heat-exhaustion for the time being. It was Jean-Pierre Fontenay, partnered by fellow Frenchman Bruno Musmarra, who stormed into the lead in the Team Off-Road Express Mitsubishi Ralliart Pajero, closely followed by team mates Saby and Shinozuka - a good start. But Jean-Louise Schlesser's buggy and Servia's Nissan were not far behind.
In T1, the class for near-standard vehicles, Portuguese pair Carlos Souza and Philippe Rey had already moved into the lead in their Mitsubishi Pajero, although ex-Formula One driver Philippe Alliot was hard on their heels in his Nissan. Spaniards Miguel Prieto and Carlos Mas were third in their Pajero.
By the second leg,the 5th of January, Mitsubishi's rivals had started to fight back. From Tambacounda in Senegal to Kayes in Mali, as temperatures began to soar and the tracks gave way to fast, laterite roads through the tropical forests, Schlesser struck back to win the stage and take the lead. Japanese driver Hiroshi Masuoka and his German partner Andreas Schulz were the fastest of the Mitsubishis in the Team Car Plaza Mitsubishi Oil Ralliart Challenger / Montero Sport, despite Schulz suffering from a severely upset stomach, while both Fontenay and Shinozuka were delayed by punctures. Souza continued to control T1 with his Pajero however, Jean-Pierre Strugo dropped out of the top 10 in his T3 Pajero with minor mechanical problems, and Prieto had pushed his Pajero ahead of Alliot's Nissan to take second in T1.
Once they had reached Nara (January 6) after along 552 km competitive section moving from savannah into the dusty Sahel, Shinozuka suddenly found himself in the lead in his Pajero after setting his first of three fastest times, Schlesser was pushed down to second in his buggy while Fontenay, Saby and Masuoka held third, fourth and fifth places respectively, just ahead of a hard-charging De Lavergne in his Nissan. Another long 552 km stage to the near-mythical town of Timbuktu (January 7) brought the competitors into even hotter, sandy conditions, and deep ruts created by local trucks over the years caused the biggest problems. Saby moved into the lead from Shinozuka and Fontenay, all in Pajeros, with Schlesser in fourth. Strugo overcame his earlier problems and was delighted with eighth in his T3/1 Pajero (prototype 4WD category), leading his class, while Souza continued to lead T1 for Mitsubishi. Preito began to suffer what would become a catalogue of problems and dropped to fourth in T1, while French pair Bruno Lhotellerie and Benoit Leheron moved into second in their Pajero, ahead of Alliot's Nissan in third. Brazilian pair Klever Kolberg and Joao Mesquita rolled their Pajero but had little mechanical damage and continued.
From Timbuktu to Gao, the 8th of January, along the banks of the Niger River on sandy tracks in extreme heat, the battle went on. Saby moved into the lead from Fontenay and Shinozuka, the latter worried by a gearbox oil leak. From Gao they struck east again for Menaka (January 9) in a change of route, but by this time the threat from Schlesser had disappeared when a tyre burst on his buggy and he rolled out of the event just three kilometres from the start of the stage at Gao. Mitsubishi was in control at the front, and the privateer Souza was gaining full control of T1.
From Menaka (January 10) they tackled a new stage, not originally planned, into Niger for the first time where a warm welcome awaited them in Tahoua. Shinozuka was by now in the lead from Fontenay and Saby, with Masuoka fourth, with Servia trying hard to catch them in fifth. And then from Tahoua they made one last big effort to get to Agades the 11th of January and the half-way point, with Shinozuka extending his lead over Fontenay, who was still very close, while Saby dropped back slightly to consolidate third, albeit 11 minutes behind the leading pair of Pajeros, after becoming stuck on a sand dune as the rally moved into true arid desert terrain for the first time.
Said Saby during the rest day in Agades: "I am angry with myself for losing touch. It could be all over for me, but you have to remember this is Dakar, and although we were very close before, 11 minutes is still nothing in this rally.
Fontenay added: "It's very exciting - very close. But we can still fight because our cars are so reliable and we can drive hard."
Masuoka commented: "I am driving very carefully. I will drive in my current position to get the Challenger to Dakar. Only if someone else makes a mistake will I get to the podium."
Team Manager for the Pajeros, Ullrich Brehmer, was by this point coming under pressure from questions from the press as to whether he would apply team orders. But he replied: "I will let Africa decide. The drivers are fighting very hard but they are very sensible, so I see no reason to intervene at this stage. The cars are in perfect condition, and no one has made any mistakes so far."
Team Manager for Masuoka and the privateers running under the Mitsubishi International banner, Karl Ille was delighted with the way the rally had been going so far. He commented: "The cars have been so reliable, and most of our cars are going very well. Souza is very good and in control of T1, but the rest of the rally is very tough, so we will have to see." Strugo, who led T3/1 at Agades in eighth overall in his Pajero said: "The car has been very good and we have done better than expected. Our goal was to get to Dakar in the top 10, but we are ahead of plan. We will just drive very steadily now to the finish."
Carlos Souza was delighted with leading T1 with his Pajero, commenting: "We planned a very careful strategy, but it has worked for us well, while the others have made mistakes. The car has been perfect."
Thailand's Pornsawan Siriwattanakul and Savanarat Tull made spectacular progress in their Pajero after a slow start which saw them climb from 22nd after leg one to ninth at Agades. Tull explained: "We had a bad start to the rally, driving in the dust of slower cars, but it is much better now. We have a clear road and can go faster. The Pajero handles very well in these conditions and we have had no problems at all."
Spanish pair Miguel Prieto and Carlos Mas were disappointed with their position in their Mitsubishi Pajero after a series of unfortunate delays. Prieto explained: "We had a puncture on the way to Menaka, but then just five kilometres from the end of the leg at Tahoua, we tried to pass a motorbike by going off the track. But when we tried to get back on the track we nearly hit a small tree and got stuck on the ditch. We tried to dig the car out for 20 minutes, and then Jean-Pierre Cassegrain stopped and pulled us out with his Pajero. I thought we could win T1 here, but things have not gone our way."
Brazilian Kolberg is still going well despite his roll before Timbuktu. He said: "The car is in good shape mechanically although the bodywork looks bad. I hope we will make it."
Unfortunately, Portuguese girls Ceu Lima and Isabel Robalo decided to withdraw at Agades as the engine damage on their Pajero was worse than expected after a chronic oil leak caused by a broken sump half way through the first week. However, Japanese girls Makiko Tomokawa and Akemi Asada, driving a T1 Pajero, said: "Everything is still good with us. We are glad to get to Agades and we are enjoying ourselves."
The two Mitsubishi FR415 4WD-RS trucks have been storming through the Sahel and desert, sweeping all before them. Both arrived in perfect condition in Agades. Akio Suehiro, Manager - Research and Development Department of Truck and Bus Development Engineering at Mitsubishi Motors Corporation reported earlier in the event: "Mechanically, the trucks are completely perfect. Gilbert Versino's truck was delayed when it took him and his crew over an hour to change a tyre that had exploded on one stage. Normally, it takes just 10 or 15 minutes, but because the tyre had shredded so badly it made it very difficult. But everything is going very well otherwise. We are learning a lot about the trucks in these conditions and know how to make some improvements for next year. However, the most important purpose for them on this event is to provide assistance to the Pajeros in T1 and T2, and challenging for the race is not as important. So, from this viewpoint everything is very good."
So far, the 1997 Dakar has proved an superb one for Mitsubishi. The cars, both the Pajeros and the Challenger Montero Sport, have demonstrated exceptional reliability over very tough terrain, and are all extremely competitive across all classes. To say that Mitsubishi has dominated the event would be an understatement; even the Mitsubishi trucks, while not leading the T4 section, are drawing admiration across the board. All that remains for Mitsubishi to claim a complete victory is a mere 4,000 km back to Dakar! There is still a long way to go. So far, just 102 cars and trucks remain in the event from 155 starters.
GENERAL CLASSIFICATION after SS8 / CLASSEMENT GENERAL après EC8
1 - K. SHINOZUKA / H. MAGNE (J/FR) MITSUBISHI PAJERO T2 35:30:56 2 - JP. FONTENAY/B. MUSMARRA (FR) MITSUBISHI PAJEROÅ@Å@ T2Å@Å@ +00:01:42 3 - B. SABY / D. SERIEYS (FR) MITSUBISHI PAJERO T2 +00:11:38 4 - H. MASUOKA/A. SCHULZ (J/D) MITSUBISHI CHALLENGER/MONTERO SPORTÅ@Å@ T2Å@Å@ +02:08:39 5 - S. SERVIA / G. PICARD (SP/FR) NISSANÅ@Å@ T2 +04:14:38 6 - J. KLEINSCHMIDT / J. BOUTAIRE (D/FR) SCHLESSER ORIGÅ@Å@ T3.2 +04:39:36 7 - M. TRAGLIO / M. DOMINELLA (I) NISSANÅ@Å@ T2 +04:44:18 8 - JP STRUGO / B. CATARELLI (FR) MITSUBISHI PAJEROÅ@Å@ T3.1 +05:19:37 9 - P. SIRIWATANAKUN / T. SUVANARAT MITSUBISHI PAJEROÅ@Å@ T2 +05:40:18 10- E. ARGAZZI/R. ARGAZZI (IT) NISSANÅ@Å@ T2 +07:05:28 11- C. SOUZA/P. REY (POR/FR) MITSUBISHI PAJEROÅ@Å@ T1 +07:17:29 51 - G.VERSINO/C.LACOURT/C.VERSINO MITSUBISHI FR 415 SRÅ@Å@ T4 +16:25:11 57 - C.GRANJON/M.IMAI/A.MARTINEAU MITSUBISHI FR 415 SRÅ@Å@ T4 +18:08:47
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