Roma wins 1st stage of Dakar Rally

Updated: January 2, 2010, 7:15 PM ET
Associated Press

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- Nani Roma won the first stage of the Dakar Rally in a BMW and David Casteu of France led home the bikes on a Saturday marred by the first death of a fan in four years.

Roma finished the shortened stage from Colon to Cordoba 2 minutes, 7 seconds ahead of Spanish countryman Carlos Sainz in a Volkswagen, and 2:50 in front of BMW teammate Stephane Peterhansel. Giniel De Villiers of South Africa, the 2009 champion, was 4:31 off the lead in a Volkswagen.

"It's only just the start," Roma said. "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."

The fatality occurred when a woman watching the rally was struck by a 4x4 driven by Mirco Schultis and partner Ulrich Leardi, who veered off course in north central Argentina.

Norberto Brusa, a spokesman for Rio Cuarto Hospital, said 28-year-old Natalia Sonia Gallardo died from injuries suffered in the crash. Brusa said four other people were injured, but the extent of the injuries was not immediately available.

A witness to the accident told the television station TN that fans were standing outside a secure area reserved for spectators.

"There was no place and the police did not stop people," said the witness, identified as Gaston Harriague. "The fields around there are all private. They are not permitted places."

French motorcyclist Pascal Terry died last year in the rally, which is widely regarded as one of motorsport's most dangerous events.

The stage was trimmed by 30 miles to 124 miles because of flooding at the start, and Peterhansel, a nine-time winner of the Dakar, led early. But Roma, who won the race on a motorbike in 2004, took over the lead after about 30 miles, and kept extending it, while Sainz passed Peterhansel after the midpoint.

Casteu won the 104-mile bike stage in 1 hour, 50 minutes, 42 seconds, only three seconds ahead of fellow French rider Cyril Despres and 12 seconds in front of Spanish rider Marc Coma. Despres and Coma, who have shared victories in the past four Dakars, swapped leads until Casteu came through at the end.

Casteu, a former teammate of Despres but riding for French constructor Sherco, said he was urged by his mechanic before the stage "to make an impact."

"So I attacked, attacked and attacked," Casteu said. "I had a great time."

Despres said he was content just to get through the first day of racing.

"I had butterflies in my stomach this morning because on the last two Dakars, each time my first day was terrible," he said. "So I'm really happy to have finished. The time I managed wasn't too bad and, more importantly, I didn't have any problems."

Sunday's second stage takes the racers to La Rioja as the rally moves northwest toward the Chilean border.

The rally, which finishes on Jan. 16 in Buenos Aires, was moved to South America in 2009 because of safety concerns and the possibility of a terrorist attack in Africa.

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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