The Dakar Rally is among the least predictable motorsport events of the year – more than 4,000km of competitive timed stages, across deserts, through valleys and over the Andes.
The 2012 edition of the famous event is set to the most wide open event since the Dakar moved to South America in 2009.
The route for 2012 marks the first major revision since the event emigrated to from its traditional home. In every previous year in South America the event has started and ended in Buenos Aires with competitors racing from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific with a succession of stages in the Chilean desert.
2012 will push the Dakar’s boundaries out of Argentina and Chile and into Peru. Where in 2011 Arica marked the northernmost point of the route at Chile’s tip in 2012 the race pushes on into Peru, through Nazca – world famous for the mysterious Nazca Lines – and onto the finish in the capital city of Lima.
The Peruvian kilometres add more treacherous dunes to the route further complicating a route and an event where a mistake costs minutes, even hours, rather than seconds and a seemingly assured victory can disappear in an instant. Just think of Carlos Sainz, who rolled out 30 minute lead just four stages away from victory in 2009, handing victory to Giniel de Villiers.
Not only is the route an unknown, but the field of drivers and riders lining up in Mar Del Plata for the start also features some important revisions.
Almost certainly the most important of these is the withdrawal of the works VW squad – the manufacturer concentrating on their impending entry into the WRC. Even more importantly is that the all-conquering Race Touareg that have swept the Car Class wins since the shift to South America have not passed into the hands of privateers – in contrast to the Mitsubishi equipment left surplus after they pulled their Dakar factory team.
Subsequently Mark Miller and Carlos Sainz do not appear on the entry list, while their teammates in 2011 race for two different teams in 2012.
Giniel de Villiers enters with a brand new Toyota Hilux Pickup he describes as being near the level of the Volkswagen. The South African has the enviable distinction of not retiring from any of his previous seven entries in the Car Class, and only missing the top ten on a single occasion, a record he is expecting to protect in aiming for a top five overall result.
Defending champion Nasser Al-Attiyah, however, swaps the Touareg for the two-wheel drive Hummer H3 of Robby Gordon Motorsports.
Gordon’s Hummers – and the American himself – have become a popular staple of the Dakar and 2012 could be the best chance yet for the team – Gordon drives the second vehicle – to clinch overall honours.
The Hummer’s weak spot in past years has been its two-wheel drive. While the regulations allow some advantages over the four wheel-drive cars – an automated tyre inflation system for example – and the Hummer has always been strong in the dunes the more WRC-esque tracks that have typified the Argentine stages of recent years have allowed the VWs and BMWs to build-up a lead early on.
Could the change in route play further in the hands of the Hummer pilots?
In order to win they will still have to beat the assembled X-Raid team – all running the MINI debuted by Guerlain Chicherit last year. The Frenchman does not return for another Dakar, but a five car team led by multiple champion Stephane Peterhansel will still take the start on New Year’s Day.
Alongside Peterhansel Nani Roma, Krzysztof Holowczyc, Leonid Novitsky and Ricardo Leal dos Santos all remain with the team into 2012. Peterhansel’s 2011 tilt was blunted primarily by recurring punctures that dropped him behind the VWs, Roma retiring on stage nine.
Peterhansel and Roma will likely lead the team in the General Classification again, but Holowczyc could be the dark horse of the team, after winning the Silk Way Rally Dakar Series event for the team in 2011.
The Truck class, too, has lost some significant players. Drivers Vladimir Chagin and Firdaus Kabirov – who have won nine of the last ten Dakars – have both retired from driving the mighty works Kamaz trucks, though Chagin remains team manager.
Their departure leave Eduard Nikolaev – who finished third behind them in 2011 – as team leader ahead of Aryat Mardeev – making his Dakar debut as a driver after two previous outings as third man in the cab for his father Ilgizar – in a Kamaz armada cut to just two works entries.
Just as in the cars the thinning of the dominant force presents opportunities for the likes of Ales Loprais – who came as close as anyone to toppling the Kamaz domination last year – winning two stages in his Tatra before retiring with engine failure on stage ten.
Franz Echter – the best non-Kamaz finisher in 2011 – leads a five strong MAN team that could replace Kamaz as a dominant force this year, while Dutchman Gerard de Rooy will be driving an Iveco truck, aiming for his third podium, but hoping to better his 2011 when he retired on the very first stage.
The make-up of the bike and quad classes is relatively similar to that of 2011.
Marc Coma and Cyril Despres will start as favourites after splitting the last six victories between them for KTM. Lining up behind them, and hoping to end ahead of them are Helder Rodrigues, Francisco ‘Chaleco’ Lopez – the Chilean has become one of the quiet stars of the South American Dakar and only missed out on third in 2011 on the final stage due to a broken shock absorber.
Pal Anders Ullevalseter – almost certainly is his instantly recognisable bright green again – runs a privateer KTM and Frenchman David Casteu joins Yamaha’s effort after two years heading Sherco’s team.
Casteu’s spot on the Sherco is taken by Frans Verhoeven to form a combination easily capable of a top ten overall as are Americans Jonah Street and Quinn Cody, on Yamaha and Honda machinery, Frenchman Olivier Pain (Yamaha) and Paulo Goncalves, leading another manufacturer into the Dakar – Husqvarna.
The final class – the quads – is the most recent addition to the Dakar, debuting in 2009. Since then three different men – Josef Machacek and Argentine brothers Marcos and Alejandro Patronelli have won the class, and all three will contest the 2012 trying to grab a second success.
Though all three men won by huge margins, even by Dakar standards, the competition is as close as any other class on stage. 2012 follows the recent pattern of being split between local riders – led by the Patronellis and fellow Argentines Tomas Maffei and Paulo Sebastian Copetti – and Europeans led by Polish pair Lukasz Laskawiec and Rafal Sonik, the former standing on the third step of the podium in 2011 on his Dakar debut, and Christophe Declerck aiming to better his pair of fourth places from 2010 and 2011.
The 2012 Dakar Rally begins for the 450-odd crews comprising 742 individuals on New Year’s Day with the ceremonial start in Mar Del Plata before a fortnight on one of the hardest races in the world.
The Checkered Flag will have stage-by-stage reports of the event, following all four classes from the first stage to the last.