I can distinctly remember as a young ’un defying my mother’s wishes and staying up way past my bedtime to watch the daily highlights of the Paris-Dakar Rally on Eurosport. It was worth the constant shouting matches and threats of having some of my toys confiscated, as the old man and I were transfixed by the sights of cars and motorcycles tackling seemingly impassable terrain. I didn’t have a clue who was participating, but it didn’t matter as it was just amazing to watch. It also became my first taste of motorsport, which is probably why I continue to have a soft spot for the ultimate endurance event.
Purists may argue that with the rally running in South America for the second consecutive year, after the event was abandoned on the 11th-hour amid threats of terrorism in 2008, that the brand may be the same, but the actual product is not. Some folk harp on that unless it finishes in a city that bares its name, that it won’t be a patch on previous years. That moving the rally to another continent was tantamount to deciding that the Monaco Grand Prix should be staged in Plymouth harbour. The challenge, they said, would be less intense – the whole reason why the rally existed in the first place.
What a load of twaddle.
Last year’s rally was as exciting as ever and it still remains a thrill to watch, no matter how, no matter where. The 31st running of the event, which is due to start on New Year’s Day, looks like being a bit of a cracker as well.
The 9000km (approximately 6000 miles) cross-country race remains one of the most gruelling events in motorsport, set across some of the roughest, toughest terrain imaginable. Starting in Buenos Aires and venturing north to Chile, passing through uninhabitable locations and thousands sand dunes along the way, before descending south and back to the Argentinian capital, it looks set to be as treacherous as ever.
Just over 500 participants have travelled to South America this year to face this remarkable challenge, split across four categories: cars, bikes, quads and trucks. Clear favourites to win again this year are the Volkswagen squad and their fleet of Touaregs, driven by last year’s winner Giniel de Villers, rally legend Carlos Sainz (whose race ended on the rocks in 2009 – quite literally) and new boy Nasser Al-Attiyah who seems particularly fired up, but perhaps needs calming down if he is to excel.
An extremely strong team with each driver going all out to win it, their biggest threat looks likely to come from within the team. But that’s not to say the Dakar Rally is a foregone conclusion before it has even begun. Close behind will be the BMW X-raid squad, headed by Stephane Peterhansel who has a wealth of experience on his side and knows how to win the race. So long as the reliability is there and BMW have sorted out their brake issues which have dogged their cross-country exploits recently, we should be on course for a classic battle between the two German marques this year.
On two wheels, Marc Coma must surely be the favourite to be the first to return to Buenos Aires on his KTM. But it won’t be easy. With new regulations imposed to make the competition closer than ever, the Spaniard will have to contend with running at 450cc this year due to the use of a mandatory air restrictor. The bikes will have the same power at lower revs as before, but will take that little bit longer to accelerate and reach their top speeds. Fine for riding in amongst the sand dunes, but life will certainly become that bit more difficult when trying to avoid the large stones that litter the final third of the race.
Most of the motorcycle riders aren’t entirely convinced by the new handicap, which has effectively led to KTM officially withdrawing after eight consecutive victories. They have however continued to work hard to find a new workaround and remain competitive for the private participants who are running their machinery. Hopefully they have also found sufficient time to rectify the tyre situation from last year, which resulted in a large quantity of Pirelli rubber splitting under long durations of high speed. With some changes in the length of stages this year, they go into the relatively unknown territory once again and could find the competitive Yamaha of Helder Rodrigues too close for comfort.
Mechanical supremacy is just one of the elements required for success in the Dakar Rally. Another essential factor is the driver’s level of fitness. Competitors need to be in good physical condition if they’re to last two weeks in some of the most desolate, often ridiculously warm, conditions known to man. It becomes a long-term commitment and from August onwards, the likes of Nasser will have been running 10 miles per day in temperatures averaging 45 ̊C in an attempt to acclimatise to the searing mid-summer heat of South America.
Another aspect they need to contend with is the high altitude. VW for example will send their drivers up the Swiss Alps to check their reactions in oxygen starved locations and prepare for life at several thousand feet above sea level.
Whilst physically demanding, Dakar also requires drivers to have a good level of mental strength to see them through. Still very much a taboo subject (no-one really wants to admit that they may have a problem with their mind), being able to remain calm after becoming lost in a barren desert is not an easy situation to contend with. Sound decisions need to be made, not just for a few minutes, but for several hours at a time, and these will make the difference between spending the night in the relative comfort of a temporary campsite, or frantically pacing around in the dark, waiting for a support helicopter to come to the rescue.
Of course it goes without saying that good navigation is also vital. A couple of months prior to the start of the event, drivers will carefully analyse overhead pictures on Google Maps of the stages they’ll be covering and combine this with the knowledge gained from their previous participation. Each vehicle will be supplied with a GPS system which only shows a compass and general direction to the next way point. Other than that they’re depending on the notes provided by their co-driver, who sets the rhythm of the race, a bit like an orchestra – it is often said the driver is in fact the chauffeur in the relationship.
Spare a thought for the motorcycle riders though, who have to play eye-gymnastics. Glancing down at the road book (digital map) on their handlebars, gawping at the GPS and also trying to keep an eye one what’s ahead whilst clocking up significant speed. You would have to question the sanity of anyone willing to contend in two weeks of rough terrain on perhaps the most difficult forms of transport going.
With so many parameters that play a major part in the Dakar Rally, it is almost impossible to not have admiration for its participants. Just about anything and everything can and will go wrong at some point, but this is what makes the endurance event what it is. It is how the competitors deal with whatever is thrown at them that makes the difference between success and failure. Dakar isn’t your conventional off-road rally; it enters dark territory – a place where everything isn’t rosy, where the wicked witch triumphs and fate is cruel.
You probably couldn’t get further away from the precise, sterile nature of F1 if you tried. The Dakar Rally (wherever it is held) is a real, gritty, hands on race that requires all the various elements previously mentioned to be at their very best. For me it continues to serve as one of the highlights on the racing calendar and proves to be the perfect start to the New Year as I sit watching in awe, gasping in amazement at some of the feats achieved.
If you’ve never bothered to follow the Dakar Rally before then at least give it a glance when it begins on Friday 1st January. It certainly beats watching a horde of burly blokes playing in the darts championship at Lakeside that’s for sure.