After a strong showing in 2012, South Africa's Dakar Rally entrants have made a good start to the demanding, world-famous stage race through Peru, Argentina and Chile, led by 2009 winner Giniel de Villiers.
Driving a works Imperial Toyota Hilux, De Villiers rocketed up from ninth place to second overall after finishing second on the 242-kilometre second stage on Sunday.
De Villiers and Dirk von Zitzewitz finished third in the race last year and began 2013 with ninth place in Saturfay's 13-kilometre special stage in the sand dunes on the outskirts of the coastal town of Pisco in Peru after the 449-strong entry of 153 cars, 75 trucks, 183 motorcycles and 38 quads had driven a 250-kilometre liaison section to the town.
They completed the special stage in eight minutes and 15 seconds, 35 seconds begind the buggy of winners, Carlos Sainz and Timo Gottschalk. National off-road champions Duncan Vos and Rob Howie, also in an Imperial Toyota Hilux, finished 44 seconds off the pace.
"It was quite an easy stage today and not much more than a warm-up for the more serious challenges that lie ahead," said De Villiers, who is competing in his 10th Dakar and his second in the South African-built Toyota Hilux.
The modest 40-year-old from Stellenbosch is referred to as "the quiet South African" and is rated by race favourite and 2012 winner Stephane Peterhansel of France as "the driver to beat".
Peterhansel, driving a Mini with compatriot Jean Paul Cottret, was eighth on Saturday's opening stage, one second ahead of De Villiers. He is a six-time Dakar champion on two wheels and a four-time champion on four wheels.
Vos, competing in his second Dakar after he and Howie finished 10th last year in an Imperial Toyota Hilux, was relieved the race was finally underway. "It's been a long build-up with a lot of preparation and hard work by the whole team. It's great to be back and we're looking forward to the serious business of taking on the Dakar and reaching the finish in Santiago in Chile on January 20," he said.
On stage two, De Villiers finished only two minutes and 35 seconds behind stage winner Peterhansel, while overnight leader Sainz lost his way and finished outside the top 10. Ronan Chabot, driving an SMG, was third, three minutes and 52 seconds off the pace.
Satisfied with a good day in the seat, De Villiers said: "Today's special stage was more difficult than we expected. It was very hot - 40 degrees Centigrade outside and 60 degrees in the car. Navigation was tricky, especially with the sun making it difficult to see the tops of the dunes, so I didn't go very fast in the first part of the stage, but then things got better.
"At the end we're happy because the Hilux is working well and we didn't have any problems. This is a good sign for the next few days, which should be very difficult."
Vos and Howie had a tough day after Vos rolled his car on a high dune, but luckily it landed on its wheels. They're is in 13th place, 22 minutes behind the leader.
Chile's Francisco Lopez Contardo won the short first special stage on Saturday in the motorcycle category, with South Africa's Riaan van Niekerk in 15th place, 33 seconds behind the leader, and Darryl Curtis in 25th, 47 seconds back. Both men are racing for the Broadlink KTM team.
"It was my first day on the Dakar and I'm pleased with how it went," Van Niekerk said afterwards. "The crowds were overwhelming, wanting to touch you and take photographs."
On Sunday, two-time Roof of Africa winner Curtis made a big leap up the standings after finishing in sixth place on the stage, seven minutes and 49 seconds behind the stage winner, Joan Barreda Bort.
'Enjoyed my ride today'
"Enjoyed my ride today, I hooked up with some fast guys and managed a 6th in stage can you believe it ! Tomorrow will be a lot harder, as we have to find the way, I will just have to do my best ..." he wrote on Facebook afterwards.
Van Niekerk finished in 38th place, 22 minutes and 16 seconds down on the stage winner.
The 2013 Dakar Rally passes through Peru, Argentina and Chile and covers more than 8 000 kilometres.