Rallying: Defending champion Sainz leads Dakar after first stage

Rallying - Dakar Rally - Stage 1 - Jeddah to Bisha - Jeddah, Saudi Arabia - January 3, 2021 X-Raid Mini JCW Team's Carlos Sainz and Co-Driver Lucas Cruz in action during stage 1 REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

(Reuters) - Defending champion Carlos Sainz took the lead in the Dakar Rally car category after winning Sunday's first proper stage in the Saudi Arabian desert ahead of Mini team mate Stephane Peterhansel.

The Spaniard was eight seconds clear of 'Mr Dakar' Peterhansel - the Frenchman who has won a record 13 times on two wheels and four - overall after the 277-km timed stage from the port city of Jeddah to Bisha.

Overnight leader Nasser Al-Attiyah, who won Saturday's short prologue for the factory Toyota team, dropped back to 10th and nearly 12 minutes off the lead.

"We decided to win the prologue, and we expected to lose time opening the road today. Tomorrow's stage is what really matters," said the Qatari.

Sainz, a triple Dakar winner whose son and namesake is a Ferrari Formula One driver, had started 28th after a puncture in the prologue but came back aggressively in his X-Raid Mini JCW buggy.

"We had a puncture and a problem with the roadbook made us lose four minutes. Happy with the P1 and with the lead tomorrow," the 58-year-old said on Twitter.

Peterhansel lost time with a puncture in the last 50km.

Nine-times world rally champion Sebastien Loeb had a difficult day, the Frenchman suffering three punctures and dropping nearly 24 minutes behind for the Bahrain Raid Xtreme team.

Spaniard Cristina Gutierrez led the way in the lightweight prototype category, becoming the first female winner of a Dakar stage since Germany's Jutta Kleinschmidt in 2005. Kleinschmidt won the Dakar car category in 2001.

Gutierrez, a four times finisher in the Dakar, recently signed up to compete in the new Extreme E series for a team owned by seven times Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton.

In the bikes, Australian two-times champion Toby Price was 23 seconds clear of Argentina's Kevin Benavides overall while American 2020 champion Ricky Brabec lost his way and ended up 17 minutes adrift.

"Today (was) quite difficult with the navigation. I got lost a little bit about 7km from the finish," said KTM rider Price. "I took a little bit of time just trying to get back on track here."

The Dakar, one of motorsport's most dangerous and gruelling events, is being held entirely in Saudi Arabia for the second time, with competitors in a protective bubble after testing negative for COVID-19.

The rally ends in Jeddah on Jan. 15.

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Clare Fallon and Lincoln Feast.)

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