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Por las Pampas: Mitsubishi holds leading two first places at South America.

The Repsol Mitsubishi Ralliart Team held first and second positions in the overall standings after the fifth of nine selective sections of the punishing Patagonia-Atacama Rally, the opening round of the 2006 FIA Cross-Country Rally World Cup. The event began at San Martin de Los Andes in northern Patagonia, Argentina, on Tuesday, March 7th and finishes at Iquique in northern Chile on Thursday, March 16th.

Dakar Rally winners Luc Alphand and Gilles Picard held the outright lead after the fourth section between Mendoza in Argentina across the border into the overnight halt at Santiago on Saturday. They held an eight-second advantage over Repsol Mitsubishi Ralliart team mates Joan "Nani" Roma and Henri Magne in a second Mitsubishi Pajero/Montero Evolution.

But Alphand was forced to stop and change a puncture 20 km from the end of the next stage between Santiago and La Serena on the Pacific coast on Sunday and slipped 2m 11s behind his Spanish team mate in the overall classification. Roma won the day’s stage in an unofficial time of 3h 19m 43s.

Brazilian Mauricio Neves had edged into a surprise lead after the first 250.19 km selective section between San Martin de Los Andes and Neuquén last Wednesday. Alphand damaged a wheel on a large rock in a slow and technical section of the stage and was forced to borrow a wheel from team mate Roma, who was also badly delayed. Neves duly began the second section between Neuquén and San Rafael with a 2m 47s lead over Roma, with Alphand down in third place.

Alphand and Roma made amends on the punishing 653.37 km section into San Rafael, with the Frenchman beating his Spanish team mate by 2m 20s to take an overall lead of 1m 24s. Their nearest rival was the Brazilian Guillermo Spinelli, over 50 minutes behind in a privately-run Mitsubishi Pajero/Montero.

"We caught "Nani" and stayed just in front of him to make sure that we made no mistakes with the navigation," said Alphand. "It was a long, hard day. The first section passed a stunning plateau and some tricky wadis. The second was much faster and spectacular. We drove for 70 km along a river bed" said Alphand. He was again fastest on the selective section between San Rafael and Mendoza and arrived in the capital of the Argentine wine region with a 1m 37s advantage over his team mate, whom he had beaten by 13 seconds on the day’s special. Russian Sergey Shmakov was a distant third in a Buggy.

Roma was able to claw back 1m 30s of Alphand’s advantage on the final Argentina special stage to draw within sight of his team mate before, teams crossed the spine of the Andes mountain range and tackled a timed 2.15 km spectator stage in Santiago on Saturday evening.

Roma - who finished fourth overall last year in a Mitsubishi L200 Pick-Up - won the spectacular super special by three seconds and headed north out of the Chilean capital en route to La Serena on Sunday, a mere eight seconds behind his Dakar Rally-winning team mate, only to take the outright lead on Sunday evening.

"This is a long, hard event and one which we are expected to win," said MMSP’s Team Director Dominique Serieys. "But we learned last year that it can be extremely difficult and I am pleased that we have out the first day problems behind us and established a big lead. Now Luc and "Nani" will need to drive in a professional manner over the closing stages and make sure that they make no serious mistakes."

The remaining four selective sections of the Patagonia-Atacama Rally will take the Repsol Mitsubishi Ralliart Team on a northerly route to Copiapo on Monday and Tuesday and the copper mining town of Antofagasta on Wednesday night. The event reaches a conclusion high in the Atacama desert at the town of Iquique on Thursday.

Positions after Santiago to La Serera stage:

01) Roma (E)/Magne (AND) | Mitsubishi Pajero Evolution | 17:49:41
02) Alphand (F)/Picard (F) | Mitsubishi Pajero Evolution | +2:11:00
03) Shmakov (RUS)/Mishin (RUS) | Buggy | +4:06:00
04) Otaño (ARG)/Monti (ARG) | Toyota | +8:37:00
05) Blanco (ARG)/Ferrán (ARG) | Suzuki | +14:08:00

2006/03/21 I 16:49 CET I Editor:

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