In the unfamiliar - for the Dakar Rally at least - surroundings of Buenos Aires, the Repsol Mitsubishi Ralliart Team sailed through the first test of its latest quest to conquer the highlight of the rally raid calendar.

Meticulous pre-event planning ensured that the scrutineering and documentation phases of the 31st Dakar Rally passed off without a hitch at La Rural Exhibition Centre in the picturesque suburbs on New Year's Day as the team prepared to take on the first Dakar not to be staged in the more usual confines of the Sahara and North Africa following last year's terrorism-induced cancellation.

"This is a new Dakar and a new course and it will be very interesting for everybody," MMSP SAS president Osamu Nakayama noted, "On top of that, we have a new engine and a new vehicle, but we have done everything we can to prepare for this race and have carried out around 17,000km of testing at various altitudes and in intense heat. We can never predict what will happen on the Dakar this year, but we will do everything we can to take the victory."

The experienced crews of Mitsubishi's four new turbo-diesel 'Racing Lancers' concentrated on their personal preparations for the start of the opening special stage between Buenos Aires and Santa Rosa de la Pampa on Saturday [3 January], while each of the cars was given a brief shakedown in Buenos Aires on New Year's Eve, with Luc Alphand, Hiroshi Masuoka, St?phane Peterhansel and Joan 'Nani' Roma at the wheel to ensure that there were no last minute problems following their arrival by air from Europe.

The entire Mitsubishi team, consisting of the four two-man crews, team management, mechanics, engineers and support staff were able to enjoy a New Year's Eve dinner together in the Argentine capital and toast the start of a New Year where the Japanese manufacturer hopes to clinch an eighth successive victory on the 'Dakar', which will closely follow the route established on successive Rally Por las Pampas events.

"It could be a small advantage that some of our drivers have driven similar stages before," team director Dominique Serieys admitted, "I would not like to say it is a big advantage because, day after day, the ground is moving. We might cross the same area, but not necessarily the same tracks.

"Experience is crucial, but some teams have two or three years' experience and are still not winning. We have won seven times consecutively, but now we have to move on with the new 'Racing Lancer' on a new Dakar, so let's see. It is a long race and we need to forget the last five or six years. In 2008, we were fighting for seconds with our rivals like on a World Championship rally, and we have to be on the pace here.

"The strategy itself will be important. I think, like always, if you want to lead this race for the first few days, it is more spectacular for marketing and advertising, but you have much more to lose by leading too early. I think the first big step will be the first stage. We need to be on a good pace and then we will see where we will be on the fourth or the fifth stages."

Team representatives will today attend the ASO's official pre-event press conference at La Rural Exhibition Centre, before the crews and race support truck teams attend this evening's official ceremonial start close to the famous Obelisk on the Avenue of the 9 July in downtown Buenos Aires.

Competitive action gets underway from the Argentine capital on Saturday, with a short liaison into a 371km 'pampas'-style special stage in the direction of Santa Rosa de la Pampa. The stage will start close to the town of San Saladillo and finish at Trenque Lauquen, although there will be three passage controls en route to the capital of the La Pampa province.

"It is different to come to South America for the Dakar - it was a twelve-hour flight and then we land and it feels like Spain!" event veteran Roma joked, "I made the Por las Pampas Rally on two occasions and, for people like me, St?phane and Luc, when we arrive in places like Nuequ?n, San Rafa?l and Mendoza, we may have seen the stages before. Maybe it's not the same track, but I know the area a little.

"Having said that, the race is not going to be easy at all. People say that the race in South America is easier than before, but I don't agree. When we used to arrive in Mauritania, the maximum length of the stages used to be around 350km. Here, we have stages 600, 500 and 400km in length. It will be long and hard."



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