Rallying: Vatanen's warm-up for desert

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ARI VATANEN and Pierre Lartigue yesterday won the first skirmish for Citroen in their two- week battle with Mitsubishi on the Paris-Dakar Rally.

The Finn and the Frenchman mastered the freezing conditions in Chailley, eastern France, to deliver identical times in the 3.5-kilometre prologue. They completed the circuit in 3min 3sec in their ZX cars - a good omen for Vatanen, who has won the race four times.

'More than anything else, I was trying to be careful,' Lartigue said. 'The ground was hard as concrete.'

The Mitsubishis, who filled the top three places in last year's Paris-Cape Town Rally were only one second behind. The Frenchman Bruno Saby and Germany's Erwin Weber led the charge, finishing with the same time as a third Citroen ZX driven by last year's winner, Hubert Auriol, of France.

The 66 cars and 46 bikes left the start in sub-zero temperatues in Paris at 6am. The first stage proper, from Fez to Beni Ounif, starts in Morocco on Tuesday.