The Dakar Rally is perhaps, the biggest challenge in motorsport.
Just as people around the world are muttering something about ‘never drinking again’ as they wake up on New Year’s Day, a field that includes around 180 bikers and 150 cars will just be starting on a 14 stage, 9,500km adventure across Argentina and Chile.
Since moving from its North African origins to South America the route – which begins and ends in the Argentine capital Buenos Aires – had proved itself a more than suitable home for the event. Despite the switch in continent it still manages to include both rocky tracks and stages across both the mountains of the Andes and mountainous sand dunes – the Atacama Desert replacing the Sahara. Words cannot truly do justice to the challenges ahead and the landscapes on the route.
Four classes tackle the event. Much of the attention is taken by the car and bike classes, but a class for quad bikes and one for trucks also join them on route.
There is little on this earth like the trucks on the Dakar – huge hulking masses capable of terrifying speed on a route they are as ill-suited to as fish are to chip fat.
The class can be crudely split into two – there are those that are entered in the Dakar to win, and there are those who are not. The latter is made up of the support trucks for the bike, car and quad teams, their hands forced by the rule that only vehicles entered in the rally are allowed on the race route.
Of those aiming squarely for the win the trucks of the Russian Kamaz team have to be pre-event favourites – teammates Vladimir Chagin and Firdaus Kabirov spent the 2010 event sharing stage wins and there is little to suggest 2011 will be any different, despite a practice crash to champion Chagin’s truck necessitating a trip back to Russia for repairs and an late arrival in Argentina. Dutchman Girard de Rooy – son of the class’ 1987 winner Jan – could provide the biggest opposition after having to sit out the 2010 edition.
Unlikely to trouble the leaders, but worth keeping a watch on, is former F1 and BTCC driver Jan Lammers in a Ginaf truck coming back for a second Dakar, after his 2010 debut.
The quad class is the smallest of the four, and the most recent addition, only joining in 2009 for the race’s South American debut. And fittingly 2010 honours went the way of the Argentine Patronelli brothers, Marcos winning from Alejandro.
Both should return for 2011, though Marcos stated earlier this month he was 60-70% certain of making the start after a 90km/h crash on a training run. However, even if he does take the start he has admitted he unlikely to push to defend his title. If Alejandro – the elder of the two – is unable to uphold family honour the class to fall to one of many rivals.
Inaugural winner Josef Machecek will be trying not repeat his early retirement of last year, while 2010 stage winners Rafal Sonik, Sebastian Halpern and Christophe Declerck are all ready for 2011.
The car class is, arguably, seen as the main class on the Dakar – and has many of the most recognisable names. In 2010 former WRC champion Carlos Sainz claimed the win he deserved in 2009 and the Spaniard will lead the typically strong line-up from the factory Volkswagen effort.
All sporting the latest evolution of the marque’s Touareg racer he will be joined by Nasser Al-Attiyah and Mark Miller (who completed an all VW podium last year) as well as 2009 winner Giniel de Villiers. Any of the quartet could win the class, but may have to overcome the massive seven entry effort of Team X-Raid. Led by former Dakar champion Stephane Peterhansel the fleet of BMWs also includes Orlando Terranova and Krzysztof Holowczyc, promoted to the German team after contesting the previous event in Mitsubishis.
However, it does not include 2004 bike winner, turned car regular Nani Roma. The Spaniard crashed out on just the third stage last year, and find himself out of the team this year, instead running with a small team in a Nissan Overdrive pickup
The Team X-Raid team also includes one of the more surprising entries in the race.
Frenchman Guerlain Chicherit will take a Mini on the Dakar.
Of course, this is no regular Mini, in fact it’s not a Mini at all, instead it is based on the same BMW X3 CC used by the rest of the team, with the same 315hp engine – an improvement on the unit used in 2010.
Then there are the underdogs. The leader the underdogs – if such a position isn’t an oxymoron – is Robby Gordon.
The NASCAR regular has become a fixture on the Dakar with his Hummer, and 2011 is no exception. The new Hummer H3 is, Gordon says, an improvement on the previous version – faster and (according to reports) four-wheel-drive. For the first time Gordon may have the tool to chase the VWs and BMWs. However, the four-wheel-drive will likely come with penalties – allowances made to two-wheel-drive entrants have given Gordon an advantage in certain areas – especially the dunes – and the 41-year-old will have to adapt to his new ride.
Joining Gordon’s team in a second bright orange liveried Hummer – long-time backers Monster gone, replaced by Speed Energy – will be Eliseo Salazar, the former F1 driver perhaps best known for for a bout of fisticuffs with Nelson Piquet.
Elsewhere Dutchman Tim Coronel and Norberto Fontana (a four-time F1 starter for Sauber) will both attack the Dakar alone in McRae buggies among the seven soloists in the car class.
Perhaps the real heroes of the Dakar are the bikers and a the two-wheeled class undergoes a massive change this year.
After a transition year in 2010 all the top riders are now limited to 450cc engines, levelling the playing field for a year in which the top riders are spread across five manufacturers.
That, of course, doesn’t mean KTM riders aren’t at their usual spot – at the top of the favourites. Marc Coma and Cyril Despres – rivals that have won the last five Dakars between them will rejoin battle, but the pair are more likely than ever to be challenged for supremacy as they trade in their bigger bikes. Coma, coming back to the Dakar after ending the previous race with a whopping six hours in penalties for assorted misdemeanours.
Chilean Francisco Lopez Contardo scored three stage wins in 2010 – even with being an early convert to the 450cc machinery – and will once more run on an Aprilia. Lopez Contardo – known as ‘Chaleco’, also won the Rally of Tunisia – one of several events run in a similar style of the Dakar throughout the year.
Frenchman David Casteu, who suffered a serious leg injury last year after winning the opening stage will again lead the Sherco squad on the bike he helped develop. BMW – with Frans Verhoeven – and Yamaha – with recruits Jordi Viladoms and Helder Rodrigues – should also feature on the leader board.
Jonah Street, the privateer American who finished seventh last year, comes back for another assault, being joined in the bike class by countryman Quinn Cody, who brings a CV that includes three Baja 1000 wins to Honda mount.
Predicting the exact outcome of the Dakar – like any endurance event – is impossible.
Fortunes on the Dakar can swing back and forth – a single mistake can end a winning run (Sainz, rolling out of a comfortable lead in 2009 for example). Rule changes for 2011 make costly mistakes even more likely, as well as increasing the emphasis on navigation. In previous years competitors’ GPS would alert them to one of the compulsory waypoints if they were within three kilometres. This year the system will only activate within an 800m radius.
All the action of the Dakar can be followed from the official site – www.dakar.com – with stage updates on The Checkered Flag throughout the event.