Nani Roma leads the overall standings in the Dakar Rally for the first time after making his experience count on the first desert stage of the event.
The Mitsubishi driver, who won the event on a bike in 2004 before switching to four wheels, was only sixth on stage three today but moved to the top of the leaderboard.
“I am very surprised and happy to be leading” said Roma. “I just tried to reach the finish without any mistakes.
“I had no real problems and I will continue with this strategy tomorrow - just drive and make no mistakes. It is dangerous to push in the dust. At one point there were 10 or 15 bikes together.”
The competitors made the trip from Europe by boat overnight before beginning the first African stage in Nador, travelling south for 417 miles to the Moroccan town of Er Rachidia.
Former world rally champion Carlos Sainz had held the overall lead after two stage wins in Europe but his inexperience on the African sand hindered him.
The Spaniard, on his first Dakar Rally, was a creditable fourth place but slipped to fourth overall for Volkswagen.
Frenchman Jean-Louis Schlesser, driving a Ford-powered buggy, took the stage honours today, beating fellow former winner Hiroshi Masuoka, in a Mitsubishi, by 19 seconds.
Masouka’s time today lifted into second place overall, just six seconds behind team-mate Roma. Volkswagen’s Bruno Saby lies third despite only managing eighth on stage three.
Reigning champion Stephane Peterhansel, who is looking for a third consecutive Dakar Rally win, lifted his performance today to clock the third fastest time and move into sixth overall for Mitsubishi.
He confessed he had not pushed flat out, preferring to take it easy until the later stages of the gruelling 5,500-mile contest.
“Today’s stage was difficult with the number of bikes and cars running closely together,” said Peterhansel.
“I kept my distance to avoid the dust and to avoid having any problems in some big holes in the rocky tracks.”
In the bike class, Cyril Despres is well placed to defend the crown he won last year after moving into the overall lead.
Despres was third on today’s stage but moved to the top of the leaderboard after previous leader Isidre Esteve Pujol conceded 11 minutes to slide to ninth.
Andy Caldecott won the stage from Andy Grider but despite his triumph, the Australian is outside the top three in fourth.
Despres’ nearest challenger is Marc Coma, over a minute behind, while Jose Manuel Pellicer is third.