The 36th edition of the Dakar Rally gets underway on Sunday (4 January). In two weeks, some 405 competitors will cover a massive 9,000km through Argentina, Chile and Bolivia, starting and finishing in Buenos Aires.
The route takes in just about every type of terrain and scenery South America has to offer: fast, flowing, WRC-style gravel roads; tight and twisty mountain passes; dune-filled deserts; and coastal plains. It being summer in the Southern Hemisphere, temperatures will vary from 40 degrees plus at low levels, and plunge down to well below freezing as the caravan crosses the Andes twice. It really will be the toughest test of man and machine, possibly ever.
So, who’s in contention to win?
All eyes will be on the Peugeot squad, returning to the Dakar for the first time since 1990. After Group B collapsed in the WRC, the French giant took to the Dakar for won four times on the bounce from ’87, before leaving to tackle Le Mans. A French team hasn’t won the French organised Dakar in 15 years.
Peugeot’s 2008 DKR challenger is unusual in being rear-wheel-drive – a RWD car has only triumphed twice before. But the current technical regulations are arguably more favourable for a rear-driver, allowing less weight, more suspension travel and bigger wheels. A c. 250bhp diesel engine provides the power.
The industrial-strength driver line-up includes two-time WRC champion and 2010 Dakar winner, Carlos Sainz; and Stephane Peterhansel, the most successful Dakar racer ever. They are joined by multiple winner Cyril Despres, making his first foray on four wheels.
With Peugeot drawing all the attention, it’s easy to overlook the mighty X-Raid Mini squad. The German outfit scored its third straight victory in 2014 and last year’s winner, Marc Coma, returns, leading the main Monster Energy-backed team. As well as the Peugeots, he will have to contend with 2011 victor Nasser Al-Attiyah and the rapid Krzysztof Holowczyc in similar Mini ALL4 Racing machines.
But of course, anything can happen in 9,000km of flat-out driving, and behind the main contenders there is a glut of drivers who will be fighting for position near the front. Mini man Orlando Terranova won several stages last year and American legend Robby Gordon is immensely fast, when his Hummer works. South African Giniel de Villiers is perhaps the most consistent performer of recent years, always in the mix for the podium in his Toyota.
Then there are the locally-run, factory-backer Renault and Ford teams, hoping find the speed and reliability to break into the top ten. Incidentally, this conjecture is all very well, but in recent times the nuclear blast-proof Mini has filled out the majority of the top placings – nine of the top 12 in 2014.
The Dakar isn’t just about the cars, though. Bikes, quads and trucks all take part, as well. With Despres’s defection to the cars, it’s a brave bet against Marc Coma taking a fifth win. But the likes of Joan Barreda Bort, Olivier Pain, Jordi Viladoms and David Casteu will give the Spaniard a run for his money.
With the dominant Patronelli brothers absent, the quad category will likely be a straight fight between local hero and 2014 winner Ignacio Casale and Rafal Sonik. As ever in the HGVs, it’s hard to see past the indomitable Russians at Kamaz. Though Dutch car transporter magnate Gerard de Rooy will again be the thorn in their sides, as he seeks a second win.
Only Motors will bring you coverage of the 2015 Dakar Rally, with news and results throughout the event.