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Sainz wins Dakar first stage, bike champion Sunderland crashes out

Three-time winner Carlos Sainz took the overall lead in the car section of the Dakar Rally on Sunday after winning the first stage despite suffering a puncture early on.

Sainz, 60, seeking to add this year’s edition to his wins in 2010, 2018 and 2020 finished 23 seconds faster for his 42nd career stage win than fellow former world rally champion Sebastien Loeb of France.

Saturday’s prologue winner and Sainz’s Audi hybrid team-mate Mattias Ekstrom was third 47sec adrift.

Sainz leads Loeb by 10sec with Ekstrom in third 33sec off the pace.

“Everything went smoothly except for a puncture near the start of the special, which also meant I was extra cautious the rest of the stage,” said Sainz.

“From then on we had no problems and the car worked like a charm. We’ll see what approach we take tomorrow (Monday).”

For 48-year-old Loeb — who is seeking to go one better than last year’s runners-up spot—it was a largely satisfying day.

“It was a nice special overall, but there were big rocks at the beginning, so we stayed vigilant to avoid punctures,” said Loeb, who won a record nine world rally titles.

“I took it easy in this part, but then we upped the pace gradually.

“We lost just under a minute due to navigation, but it was no big deal, so it was a good special for us.

“Tomorrow we will be second on the road, which is probably not a great place to be if you want to attack, but…” 

Defending champion Nasser al-Attiyah is an already daunting seven minutes behind Sainz but at least he is still in the race.

There will be a new winner of the motorbike category as 2022 champion Sam Sunderland came to grief on the 52nd kilometre of the 368km ride down the west coast of Saudi Arabia.

The 33-year-old Englishman suffered a concussion and a broken shoulder when he came off his GasGas bike.

The motorbike stage was a messy one overall with Sunderland’s Australian team-mate Daniel Sanders being stripped of the victory.

He along with second-placed Pablo Quintanilla of Chile and Spaniard Joan Barreda were given time penalties for exceeding the speed limit of 160km per hour.

Sanders and Quintilla were docked two minutes (for exceeding it by 20-40km per hour) and Barreda one (exceeding it by less than 20km per hour).

Their punishments resulted in Honda’s American rider Ricky Brabec being awarded the stage win.   

This year’s Dakar stretches 8,549 km over 15 days of racing, including a four-day excursion into the as yet unexplored desert dunes of the vast Rub’ al-Khali, or Empty Quarter.

Some 790 riders, drivers and co-drivers set off in an array of motorcycles, cars, quads, trucks and light vehicles when the race started on the shores of the Red Sea.

It finishes in the eastern Saudi city of Dammam on January 15.

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