MEPUNGA quad bike rider Paul Smith is celebrating a debut stage victory in the gruelling Dakar Rally.
Smith took the quad bike honours in stage 11, a 221-kilometre journey from La Rioja to Fiambala in Argentina, early yesterday morning Victorian time.
The 34-year-old dairy farmer finished the sand dune-dominated stage in three hours, 46 minutes and four seconds.
He was 4.18 ahead of Argentinean Gaston Gonzalez and 5.42 ahead of Marcos Patronelli, another Argentinean.
Smith is the first Australian to win a stage at the Dakar Rally since motorcyclist Andy Caldecott did likewise in stage six of the 2006 race.
Caldecott, of Keith in South Australia, died three days later from neck injuries sustained in a crash.
Patronelli, the 2010 winner, leads the quad bike class with a total time of 38.23.33.
Smith, a GHR Honda team member on a TRX700XX bike, hovered around 20th spot early in the rally but has risen to eighth with a total time of 43.13.36.
The stage into Fiambala was dominated by 75 kilometres of sand.
It included climbs to 2400 metres and is renowned as being one of the toughest of the rally because of typical 50-plus-degree temperatures.
But rain, which forced officials to cut short the car and truck classes, and cooler-than-expected weather played into Smith’s hands. “We got lucky and it rained. I think it really suited me,” he told cable network channel SPEED.
“I’ve been struggling with the bike overheating in the dunes so far. But the team made a lot of changes overnight.”
Smith is one of 14 Australians contesting the Dakar Rally, and the only quad bike rider.
He is fulfilling a long-held dream made possible by GHR Honda, which invited him to join the high-profile team.
The two-time Australasian Safari winner said he was thankful for the chance to ride in the world’s largest motor sport event.
“I’ve been a Dakar tragic for years, ever since guys like Andy Caldecott were racing,” he said. “It might sound cocky but yeah, I thought a stage win could be possible.”
The debut race has lived up to expectations, with Smith writing on his Facebook page during Monday’s rest day “Dakar is amazing”. “Just in the last few days we have gone from sea level to 5km high,” he wrote. “From massive dunes to rainy flooded rivers. From 40C to -3C. From barren deserts to snow.
“From the highs of getting through the softest sand with an overheating bike and into the clear to the lows of seeing a fellow competitor dead on the side of the track.”
Frenchman Thomas Bourgin, 25, died when his motorcycle collided with a Chilean police car en route to the start of the seventh stage.