The first competition stage of the the Dakar Rally in Argentina was run Saturday, and claimed the first fatality of the event. At the 75km mark, the entry of Mirco Schultis and Ulrich Leardi ran off course and into a group of spectators who had gone into a restricted area. Sonia Natalia Gallardo, 28, was airlifted to a nearby hospital in Cordoba, but succumbed to her injuries. Four other spectators were also airlifted to the hospital, but the extent of the injuries was not disclosed.
"The race organizers wish to present their condolences to her family and are closely monitoring developments as regards to the condition of the other injured spectators," said the ASO, organizing club for the event, in a prepared statement. The ASO noted, however, that the incident occurred because the spectators were in an unauthorized area. "The race organizers and local authorities once again would like to remind the local population to exercise the greatest care and keep within the special 'spectator zones' set up to ensure the smooth passage of the rally," the ACO added.
Former Dakar bike winner Nani Roma was the surprise winner of the opening stage, outpacing all the pre-event favorite Volkswagen crews. The BMW driver, who benefited from starting fifth on the road on the run from Colon to Cordoba, made the most of the clean terrain to edge out VW's Carlos Sainz by just more than two minutes.
Roma admitted that he never expected to go so well early on – and also conceded the big fight with VW had not really begun. "In the end, we were quite surprised by the time we achieved," the Spaniard said. "But, I'm happy. We had a fright with the engine in the middle of the special stage and had to stop to make a few checks. Everything was running OK. I think it was an electrical problem, but since it was working, I preferred not to interfere with anything.
"As far as we're concerned, it's OK. It's only just the start. We haven't really had a battle with the VWs yet. There is still a lot of the race to go. In any case, it was a good special stage for warming up."
Behind Sainz was Stephane Peterhansel in another BMW, with Volkswagen's Nasser Al-Attiyah ahead of Robby Gordon's Hummer. Heavy rainfall had forced organizers to relocate the beginning of the first special stage, reducing its distance from 251 to 199 kilometers.
Pos Driver Car Time/Gap
1. Nani Roma BMW 2h11m15s
2. Carlos Sainz VW + 2m07s
3. Stephane Peterhansel BMW + 2m50s
4. Nasser Al-Attiyah VW + 3m29s
5. Giniel de Villiers VW + 4m31s
6. Robby Gordon Hummer + 4m48s
7. Krzysztof Holowczyc Nissan + 6m07s
8. Mark Miller VW + 6m13s
9. Leonid Novitskiy BMW + 7m02s
10. Mauricio Jose Neves VW + 7m08s