"It wasn't easy but it was fantastic because it was a real Dakar stage," Sousa said. "If people thought they were going to drive 100km to acquire a rhythm, I think that rhythm has already started."

Sousa also won last year's first stage, eventually finishing the rally in seventh place.

525 teams are taking part in
the 29th Dakar Rally [AFP]
Safety and security are the major concerns during this year's rally after two children and a competitor were killed in 2006.

Since the first Dakar race, from Paris in 1978, the rally has claimed the lives of 48 people - including eight children and 23 competitors.

The route had to be modified for security reasons, with the 10th and 11th stages from Nema in Mauritania to Timbuktu in Mali cancelled after the French foreign ministry warned they were not safe.
   
French security services said in November that participants risked being kidnapped or ambushed by Algerian rebels while passing through Mali.

Mitsubishi, with defending champion and former World Cup downhill skier Luc Alphand, remain the favourites after winning eight of the past 10 races.
   
"I feel really good," the Frenchman told Reuters news agency. "I know we are coming here as the favourites and I think it's possible to do it again this year."
   
The Japanese manufacturer can also count on eight times winner Stephane Peterhansel and Hiroshi Masuoka, the latter competing for the 20th time.
   
Spain's double world rally champion Carlos Sainz returns with Volkswagen, whose four car line-up includes Finland's Ari Vatanen and last year's runner-up Giniel de Villiers of South Africa.

In the bikes category, Spaniard Marc Coma is defending his crown with Frenchman Cyril Despres determined to regain the title he lost last year.