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Just like any other rally, the Dakar utilises public roads to get to and from stages. Even so, that doesn’t make it any less surreal.

Leaving the hotel at 5am this morning to witness a man wearing fireproof overalls - complete with HANS device – straining his arm out of a Red Bull liveried race truck for a Péage receipt isn’t something locals normally witness. But that’s the thing with the Dakar. There are so many weird nuances, intriguing idiosyncrasies and odd aesthetics that a smile is continuously being wrapped round my face. And that’s before the racing has even properly got going.

Stage one would see the competitors go from Argentina’s capital to Villa Carlos Paz 517 miles later.  Leaving parc ferme, competitors made there way to the oldest region of Buenos Aires and the town of Baradero.

See, a stage at the Dakar isn’t a flat-out race from start to finish. It’s split between a road route (where timing and self-control is key) and ‘special’ timed stages (where going balls out is priority number one.)

Breaking speed limits on the road section leads to time penalties, hefty fines and even the possibility of an unwelcome early bath from the whole event. The rough racing we’ve all seen and love occurs on so-called ‘SS Stages’. These vary in length each day, but the first one started at a local motocross track full to the brim with excited locals… And a soon-to-be-sunburnt Top Gear staffer. 

It would kick off he first 105 of 2,952 miles of competitive racing over the next two weeks. Setting off at timed intervals, quads were up first, then the bikes, with the cars jetting off just before the trucks. 

Arriving down the crowd-lined streets, the cars pulled in to the pre-stage fuelling with the scorching midday sun in tow. The drivers, craving shade from the 37-degree heat, parked up under trees and waited anxiously. Ever the showman, Robby Gordon didn’t. He nerfed his ‘Gordini’ buggy up a bank and plonked it on a mound. The crowd went suitably wild.

Before the start of his - and Peugeot’s - return to the Dakar, we caught up with Carlos Sainz.

“This is the race that I wait all year for,” the Spaniard told us. “But I’m even more impatient to start this time as we don’t know how competitive we are. The first stage will be tough as a lot of it’s on road, and our car is built more for off-piste and sand. So it’s best we take it step by step and learn from every kilometre.”

Setting off with enough wheel spin to pepper the first four rows of spectators in stones, the pack wrestled their cars round the track across the luscious Argentinean countryside made up of fast flowing tracks coupled with plenty of sharp ‘where the hell did that come from?!’ bends with a noticeable shrewdness. A wise move, given there’s a long, long way to go after to the finish line and it’ll be a trifle embarrassing binning a car 0.1 miles into a 5,550-plus mile race. 

However there was bad news for current King of the Dakar, Nani Roma. His No. 300 Mini All4 packed in just few clicks in and his buddies in the assistance truck had to tow him the remainder of the stage. This has led to a chunky six hour, 26 minute slice of fresh air between him and stage winner Al-Attiyah. Which, even on a monstrous rally like this, is basically Mission Impossible. 

Fellow Mini X-Raid driver Orlando Terranova came second, while Robby Gordon - who has had opening day disasters on the last two Dakars - rolled in third.

The Peugeot got off to a steady but hardly history book re-writing start with Sainz and Peterhansel finishing in 8th and 10th. Their teammate, four-wheel newbie Cyril Despres, is already 10 minutes off the pace after day one. So there’s a lot of work to do if he wants to add some more Dakar silverware to his mantelpiece. 

TG is flying out west to San Juan tonight so we can see the cars in the desert during Stage Two tomorrow. But while you wait for that update (internet depending), click through the gallery above and tell us what cars take your fancy. 

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