PISCO, PERU – It was a perfect start to Dakar 2018 for Toyota Gazoo Racing SA, as its new Toyota Hilux showed its strength on the opening stage of the grueling event. The short opener was won by Qatar’s Nasser Al Attiyah, with French navigator Mathieu Baumel beside him. The pair completed the stage in 21:51, beating teammates Bernhard ten Brinke (Netherlands) and navigator Michel Périn (France), in a mechanically identical Toyota Hilux by just 25 seconds.

The stage comprised just 31 km, but was run entirely in the soft dunes near the Peruvian city of Pisco. Despite its short length, Stage 1 may yet play a role in the outcome of the race.

“The challenge with Stage 1 is that we have to start Stage 2 in the order that we finished the opening stage. So, if you win Stage 1, you have to open the road on Stage 2 – and this year the bikes won’t set off before us,” explains Giniel de Villiers, who posted the sixth-fastest time on the opening stage. “For me the trick is to aim for the middle of the pack, but to still stay in touch with the leaders.”

If that’s what the 2009 Dakar winner was aiming for, he certainly hit the bullseye by going six-fastest, and trailing Al Attiyah by only 54 seconds at the end of the stage. De Villiers, with German navigator Dirk von Zitzewitz beside him, will be ideally placed to attack on Stage 2, since they’ll have five sets of tracks to follow.

With that said, today’s stage winner, Al Attiyah, didn’t seem flustered at the prospect of opening the road for Stage 2: “We’ll just have to go out and do it,” he explained from the bivouac near Pisco. “For me it is better to lead than to chase, and as it stands I have a little bit of time in hand now.”

Dutch driver Bernard ten Brinke and navigator Michel Périn weren’t aiming to blitz the field, but still posted the second-fastest time. “We drove at what felt like a reasonable pace,” said the affable Dutchman after the stage. “But we’re happy with the result, and very impressed with the all-new Toyota Hilux. The team has taken massive strides with the new car, and we’re excited to tackle the rest of the race.”

Despite the dream start to Dakar 2018, Toyota Gazoo Racing SA Team Principal, Glyn Hall, was quick to point out that there is still a lot of racing to come: “We’re obviously very happy with the start – any stage win on the Dakar is a good one. But at the same time, it is impossible to measure our performance against our competitors over such a short, strategic stage. Stage 2 will give us a much clearer picture, but for now we are very happy with the way our cars performed in the dunes.”

Stage 2 is a tough one. At 267 km in length, all of it in the dunes, the stage is expected to take at least four hours to complete. It will also be an early start, as the first car leaves the start line at 6am in the morning, but since the stage is run as a loop, the technical crews will remain on site in Pisco, rather than relocating to a new bivouac