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Idan Cohen and Aviv Spector crossed the finishing line of the Paris-Dakar Rally in 43rd place overall yesterday in a Mitsubishi Pajero after completing the 17th and final stage in 28th place. Cohen, 44, of Pardes Hannah and his co-driver, Spector, 34, of Kfar Hassidim weren't the only Israelis competing in the race. Itzik Bril, 41, of Ra'anana and his co-driver, Hillel Segal, 55, of Kfar Tavor, also driving a Pajero, were forced out of the race with engine failure during the seventh stage.

The Israeli delegation received an added bonus when it transpired that Cohen and Spector had won the diesel engined production 4X4 category - in other words a car you can buy, with minor modifications, as opposed to the souped up custom built versions that take the leading places - after three other teams were found to have made unauthorized modifications.

"I still can't believe we won our category. It just shows you what a Pajero can do. I didn't think we'd win anything. I just wanted to complete the course. It's a real success for us to have completed the rally," Cohen said.

Cohen described this year's rally as having been particularly harsh and thanked the other Israeli team for their help after they withdrew from the race. "The course in Mauritania was extremely tough and I'm sure that without the help of Hillel and Itzik we wouldn't have finished the course."

Cohen and Spector overcame several major breakdowns while crossing through Mauritania. "In the eighth stage we lost our shock absorbers," recalls Cohen. "It was my fault. We are mechanics after all and the shock absorbers I chose weren't suited for the terrain. But we changed them and managed to get back into the race. On the Friday before last, we got bogged down in the sand dunes. Luckily for us, Segal and Bril, and our technical team, were behind us. With six trucks full of equipment, taking care of our vehicle, I felt a bit like Michael Shumacher."

Stuck in the sand

On Friday, Cohen and Spector got stuck in the sand once again and only just made the deadline for Saturday's penultimate stage. "It was a tough experience, driving 30 hours nonstop covering 2,500 kilometers without rest and without eating properly. We ate sugar and power bars and splashed water on our faces so as not to fall asleep and we managed to do it. Luckily for us I'm a fast driver and Aviv is an amazing navigator who managed to find all the routes."

After accomplishing their goal, Cohen and Spector don't plan on making a return to the rally. "Itzik and Hillel will be here again next year. I won't be coming back. I'm happy we finished the race and won our category. It was important for us and for Israeli motor sports which doesn't receive enough coverage, but it's time to move on. Our success has raised a lot of interest with rally teams and we have received inquiries about taking part in rallies in Italy. That could be nice and an interesting challenge because I won't be coming back to Dakar."

Reigning Middle East Rally champion, and Dakar rookie, Nasser-Saleh Al-Attiyah finished the 2004 event in 10th position in his Mitsubishi Pajero, completing a strong run in the final week of the rally by claiming third overall on the last stage.

Belgian partner

Partnered by Belgian Marc Bartholome, the Qatari lost over five hours after an accident in Mauritania, but clawed his way back into the top 10 during the last two days of the event. He finished yesterday's final stage in third position, just 43 seconds adrift of stage winner, and former World Rally champion, Colin McRae.

Unlike Cohen and Spector, Al-Attiyah plans to be back. "I feel great," Al-Attiyah grinned, "It was a very nice event and I am here in Dakar. I feel like I have won this rally! I tried to push a little today and finished third on the stage. I will be back again next year."