Quick but cautious was the name of the game for Australia’s Bruce Garland and Harry Suzuki and their Isuzu D-MAX ute on the first day of the gruelling Dakar Rally, in South America.

Starting as Car 21 on the road, the pair finished the day in 27th place*, while Swedish teammates Pelle Wallentheim and Olle Ohlsson, also in a Garland MotorSports Isuzu D-MAX finished 33rd*, in a field of 134 cars, all declaring themselves satisfied with the first day of competition (*correct at time of writing).

In 2009, Garland and Suzuki finished 11th outright and were first ‘amateur’ (non-factory team) home. They also claimed bragging rights as first diesel ute and first production chassis car. Wallentheim and Ohlsson (Tubus Racing) had some problems on the event but finished 44th outright.

The first stage from Cólon to Córdoba (Argentina) was set down as a total distance of 684km with a special (competitive) stage of 251km but local flooding made several river fords impassable, forcing organisers to delay the start by 30 minutes and reduce the stage to 199km.

“No point being a hero at this stage of the game – there’s still a helluva long way to go,” says Garland.

“Gently, gently is definitely the way to do it when you know what lies ahead. There are cars in front of us at the moment that won’t be by the finish.

“We weren’t mucking around but we knew today’s stage wasn’t suited to our car. It was rough and twisty and easy to make a mistake and hurt the car, so we just needed to do enough – and we’ll take the same approach tomorrow – to keep the car safe and stay ahead of the trucks going into Stage Three, which is when things start to get very tough.

“The suspension wasn’t quite right for today, so the guys are readjusting the shocks tonight and it should be better tomorrow. Everything else was fine.”

Garland says the spectator support has been incredible, perhaps even better than last year. While some reports suggested up to a million people crowded into Buenos Aires for the official start, the interest has not waned as the event moved into less accessible terrain.

“There are huge crowds. It’s amazing. You’re in the middle of nowhere but there are people everywhere. They just love the event. It’s fantastic.”

In overall terms, the factory teams of BMW and VW are neck-and-neck as expected. Spain’s Joan ‘Nani’ Roma is first (BMW) ahead of countryman Carlos Sainz (VW) with Stéphane Peterhansel (BMW) in third.

Last year’s podium place getters are all in the top 10: Giniel de Villiers (VW) in fifth, Mark Miller (VW) in eighth, and Robby Gordon (Hummer) in sixth.

A total of 362 vehicles set out from the official start ramp in front of the Obelisk on 9th of July Avenue in downtown Buenos Aires on New Year’s Day. They then travelled in non-competitive convoy to Cólon, 317 kilometres away, for the true start of the rally.

The first stage offered twisty and fast, flowing sections, much of which are used in the World Rally Championship round in Argentina. Stage Two will take competitors from Córdoba to La Rioja, a town in the foothills of the Velasco mountains that was also used as a bivouac in last year’s event, for a total distance of 687km. The 355km competitive stage covers some more WRC trails, before competitors finish the day with a 275km non-competitive ‘liaison’, or transport stage, to the overnight stop.

It’s imperative that the two Isuzu teams move higher up the order to ensure they stay ahead of the trucks that are competing in the event. At the start of the rally, the top 20 had a three-minute gap between each vehicle; that is now reduced. Timing from Stage Two on is a two-minute gap between the first 10 cars, then a one-minute gap for cars 11-20, then just a 30-second gap between every other vehicle.

The first three stages are in Argentina before the 9030km route takes the competitors into Chile and a further seven stages with a rest day at Antofagasta on January 9. The rally crosses the Andes back into Argentina on January 13, with the final four stages in Argentina and the finish back in Buenos Aires on January 16. The official finish is on Sunday, January 17.

Garland and Suzuki are driving an Isuzu D-MAX 4x4 ute, built in Garland’s Sydney backyard. The standard 3.0-litre turbo-diesel production engine has been slightly tweaked for better performance, especially for the high altitude sections of the event. It has maximum torque of 600Nm – up 66 per cent on the standard roadgoing D-MAX ute – and peak power of 180kW, which is 50 per cent more than the standard vehicle. It competes in Class T1.2, which is modified 4WD diesel.

The Dakar Rally is the world’s premier off-road endurance competition. First staged in 1979, it was traditionally run in Europe and Africa, but moved to South America in 2009 because of safety concerns. The 2008 race – the last to be held in Africa – was cancelled on the eve of the start after the deaths of four French tourists. Their killers had links to the Al-Qaida terrorist network and threatened Dakar Rally organisers and competitors. 
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