The dangerous and grueling marathon rally starts on New Year's Day with no clear favorite to win.
Just a few years ago it looked as if the greatest motoring adventure on earth, the Dakar Rally, was doomed. In 2008 it was cancelled the day before the start due to safety concerns, after armed groups at the Western Sahara threatened to attack competitors on their way to the Somali capital. It wasn't the first time that Rally organizers faced such threats though that time, with Al Qaeda involvement mooted, the organizers decided to call it a day.
The marathon rally, which dates back to 1979, seemed to be at the end of the road. However, a year later it was resurrected, though no more in North West Africa, but on South American soil. Three years on and it looks as if transferring the rally far away from its natural environment was a risk worth taking. And as some African nations have lost an important revenue source, the South Americans have benefited from a great spectacle they hadn't seen since the 1930s when the great road races took place on their continent. And of course, they've benefited from all of the revenue it's brought.
On January 1st 2012, the 34th edition of the Dakar (including the cancelled one) and the fourth South American edition, will kick-start from Argentina's Mar del Plata on the Atlantic Ocean, in the direction of Chile and then Peru, where it will conclude 14 days later on the shore of the Pacific Ocean. In those 15 days, the 159 car crews are expected to travel 5,206 miles of which 2,586 miles are divided into 14 competitive stages. As with every Dakar, it's going to be a grueling experience for everybody who will have the courage and the resources to show up to the starting line.
The difficulties and dangers of the Dakar are evident from the huge number of fatalities that have afflicted it in the 33 editions as more than 50 people, participants, mechanics or bystanders, have been killed. Last year four people died, among them a female spectator, two mechanics in two separate electrical incidents, and a driver. Many other motorsport events would have been cancelled under such circumstances. The Dakar, however, is different. The range of cars that will take to the starting line on New Year's Day will be relatively limited.
After the withdrawal of last year winners, Volkswagen Motorsport, only BMW Group with its MINI project will bring a manufacturer's effort to the event. That leaves the door open for crews driving Toyotas and Hummers, that don't enjoy manufacturer support, to challenge MINI for the overall victory. The main contenders will come from three teams: Robby Gordon Speed which will run a Hummer 3, Team Overdrive Racing that will run a Toyota Hi-Lux V8, and Team X-Raid that will run the All 4Racing MINI. Last year's winner, Qatari driver Nasser Al-Attiyah, secured his spot with the Robby Gordon team only at the end of October.
"The idea of not doing the Dakar was terrible," he said. "After Volkswagen's withdrawal I was bothered because I really wanted to defend my title. I looked for new solutions and I knew I needed a different challenge. I didn't want to drive a car similar to the one I won with. The best solution for me would be to drive the two-wheel drive Team Gordon Hummer. I also looked at this year's route and I said to myself that this car can do well." The Hummer poses a new driving challenge for him as well as his teammate, NASCAR driver Robby Gordon, who became enamored with events like the Baja and Dakar.
He will also try hard to improve on his best result so far, 3rd place back in 2009, in his seventh consecutive Dakar. "Last year, the Dakar was an agonizing defeat for me," said Gordon. "Dropping out on stage four was not only a bitter pill to swallow but more importantly an embarrassment. We are very focused for this new edition. In order to win, you need to be on the limit. The goal will be to win. We are going to do our best." South African driver Giniel de Villiers, winner of the first South American event back in 2009, will drive a Toyota Hi-Lux pickup powered by a 4.6-liter V8 with 350 horsepower that will be prepared by Imperial Toyota of South Africa.
"Last year was a struggle," said de Villiers. "After Volkswagen's pull-out I had little time to organize a program for 2012. Fortunately, I had begun talks with Toyota in South Africa and we've been successful in putting a project together. It's very exciting because the car has great potential. We tested the car in Namibia. We're not yet at the level of the Volkswagen, but we're not far." Stephane Peterhansel, the Frenchman who won the event a record seven times, five of them riding motorcycles, and two times in cars, will lead the MINI team's effort with the MINI 4All Diesel. The car was designed by BMW Motoren GmbH in Steyr, Austria.
It is powered by a twin-turbo 3.0-liter diesel that generates over 315 horsepower at 4,000 rpm and a top speed of 112 mph. Last year the car failed to reach the finish line when BMW also supported an X3 that finished fourth overall in Peterhansel's hands. This year the MINI is the sole BMW representative, so winning the event is essential. "Ever since the Dakar has been held in South America, we have been a lot less lucky, but it has nothing to do with the terrain," said Peterhansel. "It does make me want to get my revenge and it pushes me to be even more attentive to all aspects. This year we made the car a lot better.
We won in Abu Dhabi but we experienced some problems on the Silk Way Rally with a fuel system problem. But everything that didn't work right has been repaired and we found the solutions." Because of Volkswagen's withdrawal this year, it is not easy to predict who is going to prevail on the varied train across the South American continent. In Africa, the great difficulty was with the Sahara and its unending high sand dunes. In South America, there are also desert sections; however, there are also muddy roads, rocky hills, and high mountains to climb; a mix that makes Dakar, once again, the greatest adventure on earth.