Paris-Dakar Rally: Ambitious Lada drivers aim to choke life from old joke: Russians attempt to repair a battered image in Africa. Jeremy Hart reports from Nouadhibou, Mauritania

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The Independent Online
TOGLIATTI is Russia's Motown. There is no sudden wealth of soul music talent to be found in the city on the Volga River east of Moscow. From its smoggy environs, Togliatti turns out cars, not crooners.

Second only in the world of humorous automobiles to Skoda, Togliatti's Lada cars have suffered decades of detraction and dissent while in the hands of the Soviet state machine and Western humorists. Lada is not only determined to follow Skoda's unshackling from the comedian's repertoire, the Russians have taken the Czech company's initiative to start rallying as a way of improving their image. The biggest hurdle was convincing the directors.

'At Lada no one wanted to do rally raids. It took us three years to get into cross-country rallies,' said Mikhail Godzinsky, the head of competitions for Lada who is this week in Africa masterminding the Russian assault on the Paris-Dakar-Paris Rally. 'This is our first Dakar, but last year we did many rallies, including the Paris-Peking.'

Once Godzinsky persuaded the company that rallying would be an image booster, he has had little problem getting the entire Togliatti factory to support his team. Every morning, a bulletin relays the previous day's results to the workforce.

Every morning, for the first half of the rally at least, they had something to cheer about in Togliatti. The factory's top test drivers, used to pushing road cars to their limits on punishing pro-production endurance drives, had been trusted with two fast Porsche-powered Lada Samaras.

Against the likes of Mitsubishi and Citroen in Africa, whose budgets of pounds 1.5m are seven times that of Lada's, the Russian drivers, Nikolai Elizarov and Alexei Nikonenkov, managed to steal with regularity the bottom two or three places in the top 10. 'This car is not in the same league as the Mitsubishis or Citroens, but luckily in these events we all have equal chances,' Elizarov, 45, said.

Elizarov's hope of a top-10 place were dashed when he lost his time card two days ago on the stage between Dakar and Atar in Mauritania. The card is stamped by marshals at both ends of the stage and carries the official time for the stage. Losing it is somewhat akin to dropping the baton in a relay and Elizarov was given a five-hour penalty, dropping him to 25th place.

If that seemed the act of a novice, Nikonenkov's retirement was that of an amateur. When his Samara developed electrical problems over the weekend, neither he nor his navigator knew how to fix it.

Upholding Russian honours is now down to Alexander Lakeev, driving one of the older Lada Niva support cars, entered to repair the Samaras on the Sahara stages. The 35-year-old test driver (there are no professional rally drivers in Russia), is 64th overall. Last year he competed in the 28-day ParisMoscow-Peking Rally, which Nikonenkov completed in 14th place. 'Those who did the Paris-Moscow- Peking which passed through Russia said that, by comparison, the Dakar is a joke. In reality, it is far from being a joke.'

If the inhabitants of Russia's Motown are supporting the Lada every inch of the 8,500-mile rally, one in particular has the job of guiding the fate of the Ladas from her living room. 'By telephone, my wife has been giving me advice. She told me to drive sensibly, because the course looked very dangerous on television,' Lakeev said.

Unfortunately, for Mitsubishi, Mrs Lakeev cannot control the outcome of the rally. In two days the Japanese team have lost Erwin Weber and Ken Shinozuka, their two top drivers, in the 100ft sand dunes of Mauritania, both to breakdowns. With only three special stages left in Africa, there is virtually no one left to challenge the first and second-placed Citroens of Pierre Lartiguo and Hubert Auriol.

Citroen were yesterday fined pounds 176,250 by a French court for violating the country's anti-tobacco laws during the Paris-Moscow-Peking rally in September 1992. The company's cars bearing the yellow logo of the American cigarette maker Camel appeared in television commercials.