2011 Dakar Rally Review – After The Dust Has Settled

by James Broomhead

The dust – both figurative and lung cloggingly real – have now settled on the 2011 Dakar Rally.

407 teams of bikers and drivers set off from Buenos Aires and almost exactly half – 204 – of them returned to the Argentine capital last weekend after 9,000km and 13 stages of racing on some of the most challenging terrain the planet can offer. Along the way the event had thrown up just as many shocks and stories as ever, with racing for position continuing all the way to Buenos Aires. After The Checkered Flag covered the event with stage reports, now is the time to look back on the 2011 Dakar Rally.

Everything about the Rally says it should have been Carlos Sainz‘s year.


The former WRC champion entered the event as the defending champion, leading the works Volkswagen team of four Red Bull sponsored Touareg III. He ended the rally as the most successful man ever in a single Dakar – taking stage wins on seven of the 13 special stages – but in third place among the car class.

The story was one typical to endurance events the world over. The Spaniard was near flawless, only finishing outside of the top five on a stage once, but that one mistake may have cost him the rally victory. On stage eleven following amidst the dust kicked up by teammate and rival Nasser Al-Attiyah, Sainz pitched his VW into a hole, ripping off the right-front wheel. He lost over an hour repairing the car, and dropped to third.

Nasser Al-Attiyah and co-driver Timo Gottschalk celebrate their title in Buenos Aires

The direct beneficiary of Sainz’s problems that day was Giniel de Villiers – the South African who took the rally win in 2009 when Sainz similarly hit trouble a few stages from home – but the real beneficiary was Al-Attiyah.

The Qatari has taken the class lead from Sainz after stage eight in battle over the battle of the sand dunes of the Chilean Atacama Desert. The battle between the two had always been close – Al-Attiyah won the pivotal stage eight by just six minutes but it was still enough for the lead to change – and was frequently ill tempered.

Being teammates faced with the unenviable task of navigating the dunes the pair frequently stuck together. Footage from the stage saw them racing each other through the stage – rather than following patiently – and Sainz more than once accused Al-Attiyah of making contact with him – including on stage eight, pushing Sainz onto a dune where he would ultimately get stuck.

Once Sainz had ruled himself out of contention Al-Attiyah had nearly an hour’s lead on de Villiers and with only a pair of stages remaining – and those some of the less treacherous on the route – Al-Attiyah eased to victory, leading a Volkswagen 1-2-3 at the top of the standings back to Buenos Aires. In contrast to his teammates de Villiers had a quiet rally, almost under the radar while battle raged ahead, still second was just reward to largely trouble free run.

Only American Mark Miller spoilt the Touareg domination. A big crash in the early stages had sent him plummeting down the order, and though he continued in the rally (and finished sixth) he was effectively the support car for his teammates.

The main opposition to the VWs came from the Team X-Raid BMW X3s.

Throughout the Rally the two teams dominated the standings – locking out the stage wins between them, though only one went to the BMW drivers through Stephane Peterhansel.

The Frenchman was always the best hope of stopping the VWs but spent much of the Rally’s route in Chile being stalked by punctures. On one stage he suffered four punctures, ending the stage on one still deflated tyre – even the heavily modified racing machines of the Dakar Rally only carry three spare tyres.

The punctures struck just the day after Peterhansel had won his only stage, signalling what could have been the beginning of a great battle, but it was never to happen.

Chicherit and the MINI were surprising dependable – day one problems and test day smash aside

Peterhansel’s puncture misery was just part of a deeply disappointing rally for the German X-Raid squad. Guerlain Chicherit – driving the MINI Countryman – had significant mechanical problems on just the first day that knocked him out of contention. Leonid Novitskiy and Orlando Terranova both retired – after stage five and seven respectively, before Chicherit comprehesivly destroyed the MINI during a test run on the half-way rest day.

That left only three BMWs to return to Buenos Aires – Peterhansel, Ricardo Leal do Santos and Krzysztof Holowczyc – the Pole finishing fifth in class, justifying the X-Raid team’s faith in promoting him from the ranks of the privateers.

Robby Gordon had a Dakar he would rather forget.

The still two-wheel-drive Hummer began by struggling for grip on the rain-soaked dirt tracks of the early stages, before the man (who is quickly becoming a Dakar legend in many ways) stepped into one of the sort of stories than often means the best Dakar stories are often about those who don’t win.

Robby Gordon’s jump off the ceremonial start ramp – a highlight of a awful Rally for the Hummer driver

Slipping wide on a corner in stage two Gordon wedged his Hummer onto a boulder, and robbed of reverse by a transmission problem he went looking for help. What he found was a group of locals and an old Fiat – in a colour of orange so similar to Gordon’s Speed Energy backed car conspiracy theorists could argue it was publicity stunt. The tiny Fiat pulled the Hummer off the rock – not so much David slaying Goliath, but David offering Goliath a leg-up over a wall – and Gordon went back his way.

However, his way only lasted until the crossing of the Andes and the road section on the way to stage four, when a bearing failure in a front wheel left him stranded, and when his teammate Eliseo Salazar drove by – apparently in the belief that Gordon only had a minor problem – Gordon’s hopes of continuing the Rally were over, the start of the closed before he could reach it.

Or so it seemed.

Instead of taking defeat, Gordon completed the stage by night, only then deciding to plead his case with the rally organisers, but to no avail. His rally was over, and with it the Dakar lost a little colour – and not just because of the retina searing orange.

Gordon’s would be crown of the best man behind the VW and BMWs fell to Christian Lavielle, who finished eighth, nearly eight hours behind Al-Attiyah’s time. Tim Coronel – brother of WTCC driver Tom – finished the rally 36th in class to claim the honour of being the best of the three solo drivers in the McRae buggies to reach the finish line.

Christian Lavielle finished eighth, the best man outside of the VW and BMW camps

The race on the bikes was all about two men – Cyril Despres and Marc Coma. The two of them had shared the last five Dakar Rally bike wins, so automatically began as favourites, despite the class moving from 690cc bikes to smaller, lighter 450cc machines.

Still the KTMs remained the class of the field, Coma and Despres both able to master the lighter bikes on the stages, while others – including Pal Anders Ullevalseter, who finished second in 2010 – struggled to adapt after years of riding the 690cc KTMs.

Coma and Despres dominated the rally, beginning with only seconds between them. However, while their speeds suggested they could have kept up that level of competition all rally, a penalty intervened. Despres was penalised 10 minutes for an offence in start zone for stage four. That gave Coma the buffer he needed at the top of the standings, as he and Despres matched each other through the rest of the Rally he never lost the lead.

Marc Coma avenged his penalty strewn 2010 loss with a flawless run to victory

It was a turn around for Coma. Twelve months ago it had been he who gathered penalties through the event, handing the win to Despres.

Despite twice getting lost in the desert Portuguese Helder Rodrigues finished third in class, taking the final step on the podium on the final stage at the expense of Francisco ‘Chaleco’ Lopez Contardo. The Chilean was one of those expected to put up the strongest challenge to Coma and Despres – he won three stages on his Dakar debut in 2010 and continued to improve in other Rally Raids.

However, ‘Chaleco’s 2011 run was underwhelming. He took a sole stage win, an ever popular one in Chile, but had already lost contact with the lead pair before the race left Argentina. Third appeared to be his until just 22km from the end when the suspension on his Aprilia ended its Dakar Rally a little too early.

A ten minute penalty proved pivotal to Cyril Despres’ title chase

The time lost saw him slip 29 minutes behind Rodrigues whose trouble free run scored him third place, 100 minutes behind rally winner Coma.

Another hard luck story on the bikes belongs to Ruben Faria. Initially, the Portuguese – teammate to Despres – looked to have won stages on two separate occasions.

He topped the initial times on the very first stage of the rally, only to be handed a one minute penalty for speeding – by the merest of margins – through a populated area. With that disappointment still fresh Faria looked to have taken another stage – stage six – but again it was not to be. Again, there was a penalty when organisers discovered Faria had not stopped for the mandatory 15 minutes at the refuelling stop – instead only waiting five minutes before resuming the day’s racing. When the remaining time was added to his stage time, Faria dropped to seventh. He would finish eighth overall, Spaniard Juan Pedrero Garcia taking the fifth place Faria held for much of the race.

Just like last year, the quad class was dominated by Argentines and Patronellis. Both groups started slowly enough, Czech pairing Martin Plechaty and Josef Machacek topping the first stage while Marcos Patronelli – last year’s champion – lost six hours in penalties, again just on the first day.

In fairness Marcos was never aiming to win – having suffered two broken legs in a practice crash only a few months before the start simply being at the startline was enough as he stated he was not aiming to win, but only to support his older brother Alejandro in his own race.

Alejandro Patronelli followed on from his younger brother in the quad class

Marcos’ race lasted only until stage four, when a crash put him out, but true to his word he continued as part of the support crew to follow his brother’s progress. Alejandro was already well on the way to upholding family honour.

He took the class lead and, though he lost it briefly after a poor stage seven, he followed it with his third and fourth stage wins of the event and he was reinstalled at the top of the class.

While his pace had got him there, the above average rate of attrition among the quad men – already by far the smallest class on the rally – helped keep him there.

Both Plechaty and Machacek first faltered, then retired leaving an increasingly all Argentine affair at the top of the standings, Alejandro leading Tomas Maffei, Sebastian Halpern and Sebastian Copetti.

Halpern was the first to fall away. After starting stage five in third, just three minutes off the leader of the trio – Maffei at the time – he lost over 40 minutes on two consecutive stages, ending – in hindsight – his chances of victory and handing the leaving Maffei to continue the challenge as a solo effort.

Then came stage eight.

One of the most difficult of the 2011 route the dunes on the route from Antofagasta to Copiapo proved to be Maffei’s undoing.

After starting the stage in the class lead he ended the 508km stage 13 hours, six of which were penalties, adrift of Patronelli. The way was now clear of Patronelli to enjoy an unpressured run back to Buenos Aires. Halpern finished second 59 minutes distant, though even that was the result of making up chunks of time on a cruising Patronelli such was the advantage.

Behind the battle for third went all the way to the wire. Pole Lukasz Laskawiec was the story of the second week of the rally. While the sand dunes of the stages through the Atacama Desert were swalloping some riders Laskawiec – a Dakar rookie – appeared to have found his terrain. From stage seven onwards he shot up the leader board, taking top five stage times as a matter of course. He moved from twelfth, to tenth, to eighth, to sixth, to fourth until he was just minutes from a podium that looked hugely unlikely just seven days earlier.

And he saved his best performance until the final stage and a battle with Christophe Declerck for the final step on the podium. The pair swapped the stage lead back and fourth, Declerck clinging onto third on his Polaris – amongst a class dominated by Yamaha machinery. At the finish line it was Laskawiec, both for the stage win and third position, beating his more experienced teammate Machacek, who had long since bowed out of proceedings.

Sadly, dare it be said like the other classes, there was no surprise in the Truck category. Everyone expected the race to be dominated by the Russian Kamaz trucks, led by drivers Vladimir Chagin and Firdaus Kabirov, and it duly was.

Vladimir Chagin – The Tsar

It was Chagin who eventually took the win, after a rally of swinging fortunes between the man known as ‘The Tsar’ and Kabirov, his faithful second in command. The lead changed hands between them seven times over the course of the event. However, the Kamaz squad were followed rather closer than may have been expected.

The man doing the following was not Gerard de Rooy, nor was it Wulfert van Ginkel. For both Dutchmen the Rally came to an end before the end of the first stage.

De Rooy retired after a jump – and landing – in his Iveco rig seemingly reaggravated the back injury that forced to him to miss the 2010 edition.

Van Ginkel, however, didn’t even make it that far.

He, like Robby Gordon, was another to fall on the Rally’s road stages – often longer than the timed special stages. The Ginaf driver, who finished sixth last year, swerved to avoid something in the road, and burst a tyre, tipping the truck onto its side and into retirement in a very public location.

No, it was Ales Loprais. His Tatra became a fixture chasing down the two leaders – ocassionally splitting them on stage, but it was stage six and seven which made Loprais a hero as he beat the Kamaz hoard to two stage wins – four years after his last successes. The tiny, family backed team, had beaten the Red Bull backed team with trucks based on those used by the Russian military.

However, the romantic giant-killing was short lived. The following stage Loprais slipped back into third – a safe distance (from the Kamaz point of view) from the leaders and on stage nine Loprais pulled out, his truck having an engine problem on the stage that forced him to abandon the route.

Loprais out it was left to the Kamaz convoy to settle matters. Eduard Nikolaev filled the void in third place to put Kamaz on all three podium steps and finally, in the closing stages, Ilgizar Mardeev completed the domination when he moved into fourth, pushing Franz Echter down into fifth in his MAN – the best placed man not in a Kamaz.

Though the results may not have been surprising the 2011 was a worthy addition to the history of the storied event. Battles raged, challenges came and went and stories unfolded, not just at the top of the order but among the privateers and those not lucky enough to finish.

There was sadly – as there unfortunately often is – a tragic side to the Dakar. In an eerily similar incident to 2010 a spectator was killed on the opening stage when a car went into a group of spectators, two people were killed in Chile in separate incidents and finally a man was killed in a collision with a rally competitor on a non-timed road section of stage eleven.

The 2011 Dakar Rally

2011 Dakar Rally Final Overall Positions:

1 Marc Coma (KTM) in 51:25m00
2 Cyril Despres (KTM) +15m04
3 Hélder Rodrigues (Yamaha) +1:40m20
4 Francisco López Contardo (Aprilia) +2:09m45
5 Juan Pedrero García (KTM)+3:07m03
6 Pål Anders Ullevålseter (KTM) +3:32m56
7 Jean de Azevedo (KTM) +3:59m38
8 Ruben Faria (KTM) +4:13m01
9 Quinn Cody (Honda) +4:52m10
10 Jacek Czachor (KTM) +6:13m41

1 Alejandro Patronelli (Yamaha) in 63:49m47
2 Sebastián Halpern (Yamaha) +59m53
3 Łukasz Łaskawiec (Yamaha) +6:17m38
4 Christophe Declerck (Polaris) +6:18m30
5 Sebastian Copetti (Yamaha) +7:14m59
6 Jorge Santamarina (Honda) +11:00m07
7 Tomas Maffei (Yamaha) +18:01m11
8 Daniel Mazzucco (Can-Am) +25:11m54
9 Camélia Liparoti (Yamaha) +25:15m16
10 Francisco López Balart (Can-Am) +35:55m01

1 Nasser Al-Attiyah (VW) in 45:16m16
2 Giniel de Villiers (VW) +49m41
3 Carlos Sainz (VW)+1:20m38
4 Stéphane Peterhansel (BMW) +1:43m48
5 Krzysztof Hołowczyc (BMW)+4:11m21
6 Mark Miller (VW) +4:54m42
7 Ricardo Leal dos Santos (BMW) +6:50m07
8 Christian Lavieille (Nissan) +7:57m18
9 Guilherme Spinelli (Mitsubishi) +8:23m27
10 Matthias Kahle (SMG – Buggy) +15:11m56

1 Vladimir Chagin (Kamaz) in 48:28m54
2 Firdaus Kabirov (Kamaz) +30m04
3 Eduard Nikolaev (Kamaz) +3:20m17
4 Ilgizar Mardeev (Kamaz) +5:44m56
5 Franz Echter (MAN)+5:45m37
6 Pep Vila (Iveco) +7:16m01
7 Marcel van Vliet (MAN) +10:42m03
8 Artur Ardavichus (Kamaz) +11:09m45
9 Teruhito Sugawara (Hino) +14:21m28
10 Mathias Behringer (MAN) +17:37m35

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