Toyota’s defending champion Nasser Al-Attiyah led the way for most of the 319km timed special on the coastal stage from Jeddah to Al Wajh that kicked off the first ever Saudi Arabia-based Dakar.
But the Qatari suffered three punctures late on, paving the way for an upset.
With the X-raid Mini buggies of past rally winners Stephane Peterhansel and Carlos Sainz Sr having both lost several minutes early on, the privateer Peugeot of Khalid Al Qassimi and Zala’s Mini assumed the leading positions heading into the final stretch of the test.
And though former World Rally Championship regular Al Qassimi suffered a late setback and lost over a quarter of an hour, Zala held firm to clinch the stage win by two minutes over Peterhansel.
The Lithuanian, who is part of the Agrorodeo outfit and has switched to a Mini ALL4 Racing after finishing 12th overall in a Toyota last year, thus became the first driver to win a Dakar stage in a four-wheel-drive Mini since Mikko Hirvonen in 2016.
Sainz made it a Mini 1-2-3 behind Zala and Peterhansel, while Al-Attiyah mitigated the damage from his late-stage travails in fourth place, 5m33s off the pace.
Bernhard ten Brinke was Al-Attiyah’s next best Toyota squadmate, finishing a minute behind in fifth and followed by the other big surprise in the top 10 – Mathieu Serradori in a South African-developed Century CR6 buggy.
#516 Team KAMAZ Master: Anton Shibalov, Dmitrii Nikitin, Ivan Tatarinov
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Trucks: Shibalov takes maiden stage win
Returning Kamaz driver Anton Shibalov overhauled squadmate Andrey Karginov to top the opening stage in the Trucks class.
Karginov had led at every waypoint before encountering a setback in the final 100 kilometres, dropping down to seventh place and allowing Shibalov to claim a first stage win in his fourth Dakar.
Maz driver Siarhei Viazovich and new De Rooy Iveco recruit Janus van Kasteren made up the top three, ahead of the second-fastest Kamaz of Dmitry Sotnikov.
Kamaz's defending champion Eduard Nikolaev wound up 10th, but lost only 11 minutes to the leader.