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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - AL WAJH, Saudi Arabia — Dakar Rally debutant Fernando Alonso avoided any first stage pitfalls as the 2020 edition of motorsport's grueling 7,500 kilometere marathon began in Saudi Arabia on Sunday.
Alonso, trying to make history as the first Formula One champion to win the event, completed the drive from Jeddah to Al Wajh in his Toyota in 11th place.
The 38-year-old Spaniard, with five-time Dakar bike champion Marc Coma navigating, was over quarter of an hour behind surprise stage winner Vaidotas Zala.
The Lithuanian led home a 1-2-3 for Mini, 2mins 14sec clear of teammates Stephane Peterhansel, the 13-time Dakar champion, and Carlos Sainz.
'Mr Dakar', as France's Peterhansel is affectionately known, struggled with a language barrier with his new co-driver Paulo Fiuza.
"In 21 editions of the Dakar, I've never had a co-driver talk to me in English, so I need to get used to it," he said.
Reflecting on a solid first day's drive Peterhansel added: "There were dunes, sandy plateaus and rocky sectors where we had to walk on eggshells. We're good at adapting to these conditions, we're nimble!"
Last year's winner Nasser Al-Attiyah led the way for over 200km but he had to settle for fourth place after problems with his Toyota.
"It was a hard day, we had three punctures in 10 kilometers, I have no clue what went wrong, it's rather strange," reported the Qatari, over five minutes adrift.
One driver facing an early flight home was France's two-time Le Mans 24 Hour winner Romain Dumas, who could only watch from a safe distance as flames engulfed his car after only 65km.
Defending motorbike champion Toby Price won Sunday's first bike stage, despite losing his roadbook. "Once the road book is gone, then you're pretty much driving blind," said the 32-year-old Australian.
The KTM rider completed the 752km route over two minutes clear of American Ricky Brabec on a Honda with Austrian Matthias Walkner on another KTM in third.
Monday's second stage is 401km to Neom, a planned futuristic city being built on the Red Sea. — AFP
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