The plan was ‘slow and steady’, but Australia’s Isuzu Motorsports International Off-Road Race Team has already gained some ground after the first competitive stage in the 2011 Dakar Rally.

The event started on New Year’s Day in Buenos Aires, but the first timed competitive stage – 222km sandwiched between 566km of transport sections (482km and 84km) – was run last night Australian time. That was from the city of Victoria, 377km north-west of Buenos Aires, to Córdoba, the second largest city in Argentina.

The Isuzu D-MAX ute of Sydney-based Dakar veterans Bruce Garland and Harry Suzuki is carrying the number 322 and started as Car 22, before finishing in 19th position at the end of the day. They came home ahead of two of the six official BMW factory team X3s: Car 313 and Car 321, their nearest rival, Stephan Schott.

“He (Schott) held us up for ages in the dust on the fast section, probably for 50km or so, so we lost some time, but then we got past him,” Garland says.

“Today’s stage was the same first stage we ran last year. It was dusty and very fast in the first section, and then got tight and twisty through the mountains. Beautiful country out there – and thousands of spectators!

“It poured with rain at one point, so that made things tricky, but we weren’t trying to do anything more today than just come to terms with the new engine, new shocks and the new Toyo tires. Everything is really working well, so far.”

Garland says there is talk amongst the field about the earthquake that hit northern Argentina over the weekend and how it could affect the rally route. The magnitude-7 earthquake struck about 150km northeast of the provincial capital of Santiago del Estero on Saturday morning, but its epicentre was so deep (563km) that it gave local towns only a light shake.

“I wonder if we would know if there was an earthquake, or any aftershocks, given how much we get bumped around in the car anyway!” Garland laughs.

“This could be the first rally run on an earthquake! But obviously the organisers won’t take chances. They will work out what’s going on and come up with an answer. We’re due in the area in two days’ time.”

The Isuzu Motorsports D-MAX is one of 139 cars to start. It’s competing in a total field of 406 entries including 170 bikes, 30 quads and 67 trucks.

This is the third time the legendary endurance race has run in South America (after terrorists forced the cancellation of the 2008 event in its traditional home of Africa), and the third time Isuzu MotorSports has competed.

Garland and Suzuki’s best result was their first attempt in 2009: 11th outright, first ‘amateur’ (non-factory team), first diesel ute and first production chassis car. They were forced to withdraw at the end of Week One last year, after a freak incident in which a spare wheel smashed the radiator.

Ahead of the crews is 9618km of tough territory, of which 5020km is timed competitive sections (13 stages). Entrants will race at altitudes of up to 5000m, in sand dunes around one kilometre high, and through the world’s driest desert, the Atacama.

The 2011 D-MAX is powered by a new version of an already-tweaked 3.0-litre turbo diesel Isuzu engine. The previous version produced approximately 630Nm of maximum torque and around 192kW of peak power, or an increase of 75 and 60 per cent, respectively, on the standard Isuzu D-MAX engine, but Garland says the new engine has more top-end speed.
 1. Carlos Sainz/Lucas Cruz Senra   VW Touareg    2h18m32s
2. Stéphane Peterhansel/J-P Cottret    BMW X3 CC    2h20m03s
3. Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah/Timo Gottschalk    VW Touareg    2h20m48s
4. Mark Miller/Ralph Pitchford    VW Touareg    2h22m49s
5. Giniel de Villiers/Dirk von Zitzewitz    VW Touareg    2h23m38s
19. Bruce Garland/Harry Suzuki    Isuzu D-MAX    2h47m15s
21. Ricardo Leal Dos Santos/Paulo Fiùza    BMW X3 CC    2h48m17s
24. Stephan Schott/Holm Schmidt   BMW X3 CC    2h49m03s

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