The death of Argentinian rider Jorge Martinez Boero overshadowed the first day of the Dakar Rally on Sunday during which Russia’s Leonid Novitzkiy led the cars section and Chilean Francisco Lopez the motorbikes.
The 38-year-old Boero, making his second appearance on the gruelling rally, suffered a heart attack after being seriously injured in a fall from his Beta bike two kilometres from the end of the stage between Mar del Plata and Santa Rosa de la Pampa in the west of Argentina.
Organisers said that Boero received medical attention within five minutes of the crash and was airlifted by helicopter, but died on his way to hospital.
Boero, they said, “was the victim of a fall at kilometre 55 of the special of the first stage between Mar del Plata and Santa Rosa”.
“The rider suffered a cardiac arrest following his fall and was attended five minutes after the accident by the medical staff, who reached the place of the incident by helicopter.
“Despite their best efforts, the doctors were unable to resuscitate the pilot, who died while he was being taken to hospital.
“The organisers of the rally offer their heartfelt condolences to his family and loved ones.”
Boero was the son of a former Argentinian racing champion of the same name who died in 2004. His only previous Dakar Rally appearance last year ended when he crashed into a ravine during stage six in Chile and had to wait eight hours before being rescued.
Boero’s death was the 21st of a competitor during a Dakar Rally, organised 29 times in Africa from 1979 before moving to South America in 2009.
In total, 59 people have died during the rally, including more than 20 spectators.
“It’s a real tragedy. He’s a boy that we knew well,” said race director Etienne Lavigne. “There’s a lot of emotion at the camp tonight. It will be tough to start tomorrow. But it’s the biggest tribute we could give him. The competition continues.”
During the day’s racing Mini got off to a flying start with Novitzkiy clocking 32min 12sec over the 57km special to finish 5sec ahead of Poland’s Krzysztof Holowczyc with France’s former champion Stephane Peterhansel 9sec off the pace - both also in Minis.
Defending champion Nasser Al Attiyah however struggled home 9min 50sec behind Novitzhiy after his Hummer ran into mechanical problems.
“We will see, but this does not look good ... whatever happens, this is not a good way to start the Dakar!” said the Qatari.
Aprilia rider Lopez timed 32min 37sec coming in 14sec ahead of defending motorbike champion Marc Coma of Spain on a KTM and 27sec in front of Argentinian Javier Pizzolito, riding a Honda.
Coma scored some early points against team-mate and principal rival Frenchman Cyril Despres, who finished 1min 48sec behind the stage winner in 13th place.
Uruguay’s Sergio La Fuente leads the quad standings and Dutch driver Marcel van Vliet the truck category.