PISCO  - Former champion Carlos Sainz opened his campaign for a second Dakar Rally title by taking the opening 13 km special stage between Lima and Pisco on Saturday. The Spaniard, who won the gruelling race in 2010 in a Volkswagen, drove his Buggy to victory in a time of 7 min 40 sec, beating Argentina's Lucio Alvarez, in a Toyota, into second, with French driver Guerlain Chicherit, in an SMG, claiming third.

Sainz enjoyed an eight-second advantage over Alvarez and a 10-second gap on Chicherit. His Qatari teammate, Nasser al-Attiyah, the 2011 champion, who was forced to retire in a Hummer 12 months ago, finished fourth. "Today was a very small stage and we can say that the rally starts for real tomorrow," said Sainz.

"This first stage was like a little taste of what we can expect in the coming days. Nevertheless it was good to start the Dakar by winning the first stage because it gives the whole team confidence." The two Buggys, backed by the financial might of Qatar but prepared in California, gave an early glimpse of their strengths.

That was bad news for defending champion Stephane Peterhansel whose bid for an 11th Dakar title, after collecting four wins in the auto section and six on two wheels, got off to a disappointing start. The French driver was down in sixth place in his Mini, 34 seconds behind Sainz. "It feels great to be racing after spending so much time on test drives. So I'm quite happy just to start the Dakar with this car," said Attiyah.

"I put the pedal on the metal from the start and I'm happy with the time I posted in such a short special. Of course, everyone drove really hard today, but I think we're well placed for tomorrow's stage."

America's Robby Gordon, who was fifth last year after coming close to a disqualification, was in 87th place in his Hummer after experiencing trouble with his vehicle's GPS. Peterhansel said his Mini would improve as the race progressed towards its January 19 finish.

"The special was quite fun, with nice dunes and high speeds, but it wasn't easy because it's been a few months since the last time we drove a race car, so we need two or three days to get used to all this again," he said. "We hit the brakes for no good reason at the top of the dunes quite a lot, which cost us some time. We're going to ease into the rally."

Chile's Francisco Lopez, riding a KTM, won the motorcycling stage. Dutchman Frans Verhoeven, on a Yamaha, was second, with another Chilean, Pablo Quintanilla, claiming third place for Honda who are making their Dakar return after a two-decade absence.

Lopez clocked 7 min 51 sec, with Verhoeven a second further back and Quintanilla five seconds off the pace. French rider Cyril Despres, the defending champion, was in fifth place, 13 sec behind Lopez. In all, 449 vehicles (183 motos, 153 autos, 38 quads and 75 lorries), left the starting line on Saturday. Sunday's second stage is a 327 km (242 km timed) stage in and around Pisco.