(Reuters) – Double Formula One world champion Fernando Alonso made a solid Dakar Rally debut in Saudi Arabia on Sunday and was 11th after the first 752km coastal stage from the port city of Jeddah to Al Wajh.
Lithuanian Vaidotas Zala was surprise fastest in the car category, the Mini JCW Rally driver ending the day with an advantage of two minutes and 14 seconds over France’s 13 times winner Stephane Peterhansel, in a Mini JCW Buggy.
Spaniard Carlos Sainz, the 2018 winner, completed a Mini 1-2-3 while defending champion Nasser al-Attiyah of Qatar was fourth for Toyota.
“We briefly went the wrong way after a waypoint and then picked up a puncture later on,” said Sainz.
Al-Attiyah was quick from the start and led for 200km before he was slowed by three punctures in the closing part of the stage.
Spaniard Alonso, who left Formula One at the end of 2018 with his seat at McLaren taken by Sainz’s son and namesake, was 15 minutes and 27 seconds off the pace in his Toyota Hilux pickup.
The two times Le Mans 24 Hours winner has said the Dakar represents his toughest challenge to date and his main aim is to get to the finish in Qiddiya on Jan. 17.
“I don’t want to…quit after the second or third day because of a stupid mistake,” the 38-year-old had said before the start. “I have to approach it with a certain calmness.”
The stage win was a career first for Zala.
Australian Toby Price, the reigning motorcycle champion for KTM, started where he finished the 2019 event with a stage win but only a five second advantage over American Ricky Brabec on a Honda after a two minute penalty.
Russian Anton Shibalov, driving a Kamaz, led the truck category.
Three times Le Mans winner Romain Dumas saw his Dakar dreams go up in smoke when his Peugeot caught fire 65km into the special stage, forcing the Frenchman’s retirement.
This year’s Dakar is held for the first time in the Middle East, with the event moving from South America a decade after it had left Saharan Africa for security reasons.
The route will visit the mountains in the north and the Rub al Khali, or ‘Empty Quarter’, desert region in the south.
(Writing by Alan Baldwin in London; editing by Toby Davis)
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