The MINI JCW Buggy team flexed its muscles on the opening special stage of the Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia, as reigning champion Carlos Sainz and teammate Stephane Peterhansel finished 1-2 in the 277km run from the start in Jeddah to Bisha.

After falling behind early on, Sainz surged ahead in the latter portion of the the stage to win by 25 seconds over Peterhansel.

“We spent lots of time in the midst of the vegetation, with bushes, tight corners… We knew the bodywork would be in pretty poor shape by this evening, but when you want to be fast, you can’t drive too conservatively,” related Peterhansel. “Starting late benefited us a lot, but things will be different tomorrow if we have to open the road. This wasn’t our strategy at all because we knew stage 2 will feature even more navigation. Yesterday (in the prologue stage) we messed up, but we did well today. It’s one thing to have a plan and a different one to implement it. It would be better to start in fifth or sixth place tomorrow.”

The winner of Saturday’s prologue, Nasser Al-Attiyah, crossed the finish line of the first special in 10th place with his Toyota, 12 minutes behind Sainz. However, the Qatari said he expected a slow start and was confident of bouncing back quickly.

“We decided to win the prologue, and we expected to lose time opening the road today,” said Al-Attiyah. “Tomorrow’s stage is what really matters. I’m really happy with how it went because we made no mistakes.”

By contrast, rally legend Sebastien Loeb had a dismal start to his Dakar comeback. The Frenchman, driving a Prodrive-run Bahrain Raid Xtreme buggy this year, conceded over 24 minutes to the winner in the opening stage. Three separate tire punctures ruined his pace, while a couple of navigational errors pushed him further down the classification.

In motorcycles, America’s Ricky Brabec also hit early trouble. The reigning Dakar champ and winner of the prologue ran into navigational trouble and paid a hefty price, conceding over 18 minutes to stage winner Toby Price.

“The roadbook never made complete sense. We did a good prologue and, after a good prologue, a stage like this is almost impossible to do,” admitted Brabec, who explained the warnings about entering controlled speed zones gave him trouble. “It’s a difficult day. The double-danger beep is kinda scary because you hear the beeping going off and you hit the brakes really hard because you don’t know if it’s a speed zone or not… It just takes a little getting used to. We went into today knowing that we would lose time, but this is only day one and there’s 11 days left. Today was a short day in my opinion.”

Monday’s Stage 2 takes the contenders from Bisha through dunes to Wadi Al Dawasir.