Since the Dakar Rally fled Africa for South America the events spiritual home has been Argentina, the entrants departing from Buenos Aires for each of the last four years. For 2013 that changes as the Dakar Rally takes a new route to a new destination.
After starting and finishing in the Argentine capital for three years 2012 marked a departure from the familiar formula, starting from Mar del Plata near Buenos Aires but instead taking a trail all the way to Peru – for the first time in the event’s history – to finish in Lima.
This year Lima remains on the route, though as the starting point for the rally on January 5 and though the Dakar Rally again goes ‘capital to capital’ the race ends in Chile – at Santiago – instead of Argentina, the nation only putting in a brief cameo in the 2013 edition with three stages as the route crosses the Andes during the mid-part of the 14 stage schedule.
Through the route facing the field of 2013 is different the challenge will be familiar to the drivers and riders. The 4100+km of timed special stages take in the normal mix of fast, rocky tracks and desert dunes, the 2013 route never far from the dunes of the Atacama Desert that flanks the Pacific Ocean up Chile and into Peru.
The entry list, like the route, is the site of evolution, rather than revolution for this year’s edition with – save for a few important exceptions – the big names of recent Dakar Rally ready to take on arguably the world’s toughest motorsport event again.
Starting with the bikes – as will do most of the race’s stages – it is hard to miss one of the biggest names missing from the 2013 entry – Marc Coma. The Spaniard – winner in Africa in 2006 and in South America in 2009 and 2011 will miss his first Dakar since 2002 after a crash in October. On paper Coma’s absence leaves the way clear for Cyril Despres to add a second consecutive and fifth all-time Dakar win to his CV.
However, while it could allow Despres another title it is equally likely to leave space for another rider to square up to Frenchman for class honours.
By virtue of completing the 2012 podium – behind Despres and Coma – Helder Rodrigues leads the opposition, though the Portuguese moves from Yamaha to lead a Honda.
Ride changes for 2013 are something of a theme in the bike ranks of the Dakar. After taking a career best fourth place in 2012 Jordi Viladoms hops aboard a Husqvarna for this year’s race, joining the Chilean Tamarugal squad. In the team – though not in terms of manufacturer – Viladoms is joined by Francisco Lopez.
Previously astride an Aprilia Lopez, perhaps more than any other rider, has risen to prominence since the Dakar upped sticks to South America. He has taken stage wins in each of the four Dakar since the move, with a best finish of third in 2010 when he won three stages. Now on a KTM – long the bike of choice for the front-runners – 2013 could be Lopez’s best chance yet of finally delivering a Dakar win, and when better for the Chilean to win than on the route that ends in Santiago.
Changes of machinery are an important part of the car class to, with Nasser Al–Attiyah and Carlos Sainz – both previous winners as part of the VW works team – in buggies fielded by Al-Attiyah’s own team.
There are several notable drivers in buggies – and other two wheel drive cars – in 2013. Robby Gordon – after controversy in 2012 – returns to the Dakar with his Hummer, while Guerlain Chicherit, who missed last year’s rally, will drive a SMG Buggy.
Al-Attiyah and Sainz, at least, are aiming simply to finish Al-Attiyah explaining the new team – and new car – is a three year project. However, with two past champions in the cars it is tempting to think of the first buggy win since Jean-Louis Schlesser’s 2000 victory.
In their way – as well as the problems so often thrown up by new machinery – is the traditional four-wheeled entry.
Giniel de Villiers, also a past winner, returns in a Toyota while defending champion Stephane Peterhansel leads a strong MINI X-Raid squad that also includes Nani Roma, Krzysztof Holowczyc and Leonid Novistskiy – all potential winners . If the ill luck and unlikely occurrences that punctuate Dakar history stay away from the X-Raid fleet then it is extremely likely that a MINI driver will be victorious in Santiago.
Also worth of a mention in the car class are Spanish driver Jose Luis Alvarez Who takes on the Dakar on a Polaris quad bike topped with the body of a SMART car and the British Race2Recovery team who aim to be the first team of injured servicemen to complete the Dakar fielding a team of four cars in the race.
Though he carries the #250 plate traditionally taken by the past winner in the class Marcos Patronelli finished second in 2012, though with his elder brother – Alejandro – moving aside from the race this year it is the 2010 in the quad class who will lead the way.
The two Argentine brothers had been the class of the field in recent years, but like in the bike class the absence of one of the top riders could leave the road open for a new name to fight for the class win.
Tomas Maffei completed an all Argentinean podium last year – despite winning four stages, one more than Marcos Patronelli – so is perhaps the strongest opposition. However, after being prevented from running for overall honours last year due to failing scrutineering the Polish pairing of Rafal Sonik and Lukasz Laskawiec. Add to the foursome Sergio La Fuente, the Uruguayan who won two stages in 2012 and Lucas Bonetto and there are more than enough riders with the potential to challenge the race’s sole Patronelli.
The biggest changes, arguably, are in the truck category with the previously dominant Russian Kamaz team undergoing more personnel changes with Firdaus Kabirov following Vladimir Chagin into retirement. With the pair – who between them won nine Dakar for the manufacturer – it is left to Eduard Nikolaev, with support from second generation Kamaz man Ayrat Mardeev to try and lead the Kamaz team back to the title that Gerard de Rooy took last year.
De Rooy will be trying to take a second consecutive title, Iveco teammate and fellow Dutchman Hans Stacey trying to add a second title to his 2007 win.
After three stage wins, but two retirements, in the last two editions Ales Loprais is a contender for victory if he and his small team can keep his Tatra on the stages for two weeks.
www.theCheckeredFlag.co.uk will have stage by stage reports throughout the 2013 Dakar, following the event from Lima to Santiago.