The 2010 Dakar Rally is underway, and already the strain is showing on the men and machines taking on the 4,000 kilometres of racing ahead of them.
The first casualty didn’t even get to make it the ceremonial start ramp and tour of the city streets of Buenos Aires, where the rally begins and ends. Argentine Javier Pizzolito's Honda caught on fire before even turning a wheel in anger.
But bad luck and problems on the Dakar are indiscriminate of who you are, and they caught potential winner Frans Verhoeven out on the 320-kilometre "connection" part (an untimed journey from the camp to the start of the Special Stage) of Saturday’s opening stage, delaying him for 40 minutes. Eventually, the Dutchman and his BMW made it to the start of the first stage.
As always, even the conditions of the Dakar beat the Dakar. Localised flooding on the route left some of the rivers, originally intended to be forded by competitors, too dangerous.
As a result the "connection" was extended by 52 kilometres and the racing stage trimmed accordingly.
Early battles were expected between the KTMs of Marc Coma and Cyril Despres and the Sherco machine of David Casteu at the sharp end of the bike field. Coma and Despres, both already multiple Dakar champions, swapped the lead through much of the 168-kilometre stage the bikes ran on.
However, at the end of the stage it was Casteu, on the Sherco bike he helped develop for the French manufacturer, who took the second stage win of his Dakar career, and the first overnight lead, as he leap-frogged both Despres and Coma to take a three-second lead over the Frenchman. Despres finished nine seconds ahead of Coma.
It was an even less successful day for the defending champions in the quad and car classes.
Czech Josef Machacek saw a lead of over a minute slip by the halfway point of the opening stage, slumping to over four minutes behind Rafal Sonik at the 137-kilometre marker on the stage.
Machacek would claw back some of the lost time by stage's end, coming home third fastest, 2:34 behind Sonik and sandwiched between the Argentinean Patronelli brothers, younger brother (and 2009 runner up) Marcos getting the better of Alejandro.
In the car class, it was the expected duel between the star-studded squads of VW and BMW and their diesel-powered cars.
For much of the early part of the stage, the VW of Carlos Sainz and the BMWs of Nani Roma and Stephane Peterhansel ran close. Only a second separated their times just before half distance. When one driver began to pull out a lead, it was neither the three time champion Peterhansel, nor the WRC legend Sainz.
It was Roma.
The man rescued from the Mitsubishi squad when they pulled out (with Sainz’s 2009 co-driver Michel Perin alongside) never looked back, securing a two-minute lead by the end of the 199-kilometre stage, with Sainz second ahead of Peterhansel and VW teammates Nasser Al-Attiyah and Giniel de Villiers, the South African having slipped off the pace early.
Racing polymath Robby Gordon, driving a Hummer H3, fell to sixth fastest in the closing kilometres after having been faster than de Villiers for much of the day. However, the WRC-like stages in the early rally are unlikely to suit the Hummer, and the American survived a minor off trying to keep up with the diesels at halfway.
This a day after Gordon had stolen the show at the ceremonial start in Buenos Aires by jumping over the start ramp in front of a crowd of more than 300,000.
Gordon's off was, unfortunately not the only accident of the day. Guerlain Chicherit, teammate to Roma and Peterhansel lost nearly an hour near the end of the first stage, as his BMW suffered technical problems.
But it was the trucks where the bigger accidents appear to have struck. Tomas Tomecek and Martin van der Brink both falling victim to the same corner, the latter's Ginaf limping to the end of the stage over an hour off the pace and having held up several drivers behind them.
However, the first day was not without the tragedy that seems to stalk the event, with reports of a spectator having been killed after a Desert Warrior, driven by Dutchman Mirco Schultis, left the road around the 75km mark.
Stage One Results
1. David Casteu (Sherco) 1h50:42
2. Cyril Despres (KTM) +0h00:03
3. Marc Coma (KTM) +0h00:12
4. Jordi Viladoms (KTM) +0h01:45
5. Francisco Lopes Contardo (Aprilia) +0h02:42
1. Nani Roma (BMW) 2h11:15
2. Carlos Sainz (VW) +0h02:07
3. Stephane Peterhansel (BMW) +0h02:50
4. Nasser Al-Attiyah (VW) +0h03:29
5. Giniel De Villiers (VW) +0h04:31
1. Rafal Sonik (Yamaha) 2h08:49
2. Marcos Patronelli (Yamaha) +0h01:5
3. Josef Machacek (Yamaha) +0h02:34
4. Alejandro Patronelli (Yamaha) +0h04:29
5. Martin Plechaty (Yamaha) +0h04:31
1. Vladimir Chagin (Kamaz) 2h35:47
2. Ales Loprais (Tatra) +0h00:27
3. Firdaus Kabirov (Kamaz) +0h04:00
4. Ilgizar Mardeev (Kamaz) +0h09:50
5. Martin Macik (Liaz) +0h10:59