• AFP-JIJI, Reuters

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Fernando Alonso didn’t have any pitfalls in the first stage of his Dakar Rally debut as the 2020 edition of motorsport’s grueling 7,500-km marathon began in Saudi Arabia on Sunday.

Alonso, trying to make history as the first Formula One champion to win the event, completed the drive from Jeddah to Al Wajh in his Toyota in 11th place.

The 38-year-old Spaniard, with five-time Dakar bike champion Marc Coma navigating, was over a quarter of an hour behind surprise stage winner Vaidotas Zala.

The Lithuanian led a 1-2-3 for Mini, and was 2 minutes, 14 seconds clear of teammates Stephane Peterhansel, the 13-time Dakar champion, and Carlos Sainz.

Alonso, who left Formula One at the end of 2018 with his seat at McLaren taken by Sainz’s son and namesake, was 15 minutes, 27 seconds off the pace in his Toyota Hilux pickup.

Alonso, a two-time Formula One champions and two-time winner of 24 Hours of Le Mans, has said Dakar represents his toughest challenge to date and that his main aim is to get to the finish line in Qiddiya on Jan. 17.

“I don’t want to . . . quit after the second or third day because of a stupid mistake,” the 38-year-old had said before the start. “I have to approach it with a certain calmness.”

“Mr. Dakar,” as France’s Peterhansel is affectionately known, struggled with a language barrier with his new co-driver Paulo Fiuza.

“In 21 editions of the Dakar, I’ve never had a co-driver talk to me in English, so I need to get used to it,” he said.

Reflecting on a solid first day’s drive, Peterhansel added: “There were dunes, sandy plateaus and rocky sectors where we had to walk on eggshells. We’re good at adapting to these conditions, we’re nimble!”

Last year’s winner Nasser Al-Attiyah led the way for over 200 km but he had to settle for fourth place after problems with his Toyota.

“It was a hard day, we had three punctures in 10 km, I have no clue what went wrong, it’s rather strange,” reported the Qatari, over five minutes adrift.

Australian Toby Price, the reigning motorcycle champion for KTM, started where he finished the 2019 event, with a stage win, but only a five second advantage over American Ricky Brabec on a Honda after a two minute penalty.

Russian Anton Shibalov, driving a Kamaz, led the truck category.

Three-time Le Mans winner Romain Dumas saw his Dakar dreams go up in smoke when his Peugeot caught fire 65 km into the special stage, forcing the Frenchman’s retirement.

This year’s Dakar is being held in the Middle East for the first time. The event moved here from South America a decade after having left Saharan Africa for security reasons.

The route will visit the mountains in the north and the Rub al Khali, or “Empty Quarter,” desert region in the south.

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