Men and women put themselves and their machines through the grind that is the Dakar Rally to kick off the global motorsport season in grand fashion.
Before one can say anything about the Dakar Rally, one needs a little perspective to understand the gruelling motorsport event. Depending on your daily commute – for some it can be as much as 150 kilometers coming and going – you are bound to rack up 9,000 kilometers sooner or later on your car or motorcycle. But can you imagine doing so within two weeks and that too while charging through winding hillside trails, deserts and salt flats? Probably not something an average commuter can fathom!
And yet subjecting themselves to such a distance through some of the harshest terrain on Earth is exactly what over 400 participants in cars, motorcycles, quadricycles and trucks sign up for every January for the Dakar Rally.
It has now been 37 years since the first edition of the rally-raid was organized. Shifting continents from Africa’s northern regions to South America has only seemed to add to the sheen of the event as participants and manufacturers are greeted by a lot more fans instead of just tearing through some of the poorest regions on Earth in extremely expensive machinery.
As of now, South America is also a far bigger market for auto manufacturers and their presence has been felt thanks to the swell in entries from the continent, Argentina in particular.
The battle for overall honours was still a fight between riders and drivers who had made their presence felt back in the event’s original Paris-Dakar avatar though.
Well before the event, Peugeot grabbed a lot of attention by revealing their radical looking 2008 DKR, a rear-wheel drive entry named after a production-ready car but looking nothing like it.
The French marque’s return to the event since conquering it in the late eighties with the 205 T16 and the 405 T16 was further underlined with the announcement of a potent driver line-up. Stephane Peterhansel (who has won the Dakar 11 times on two wheels and four), Carlos Sainz and Cyril Despres (a five-time bike category winner) were pretty much the best Peugeot could have hoped for.
On paper they looked like favourites, but the Dakar is not very kind on vehicles that have never turned a wheel on its harsh environs before.
The sight of Peterhansel and Jean-Paul Cottret stuck in Chile’s barren vastness, informing their team via satellite phone that hey have been forced to do running repairs pretty much summed up Peugeot’s comeback campaign.
Such was the “rough” nature of the 2008 DKR that 11th overall was the best that it could achieve in the experienced hands of Peterhansel while Despres languished even lower and Sainz had to drop out.
It left the way all but clear for Qatar’s ‘dune king’ Nasser Al-Attiyah who took his All 4 Racing Mini to the top of the overall standings with South Africa’s Giniel de Villiers providing occassional competition but ultimately finishing 35 minutes behind in second place in his Toyota Hilux.
With Volkswagen done wiping the floor with the competition, the All 4 Racing Mini has become the weapon of choice for the competitors in the car category. Be it well-heeled privateers (for all intensive purposes) like Al-Attiyah or well-funded teams. Peugeot’s challenge to its current supremacy is still a premature one.
An almost similar situation exists in the bike category as well with KTM ruling the roost with its factory team as well as a swarm of its 450 Rally Replica used by riders from around the world – including one very plucky Bangalorean by the name of C S Santosh – and Honda trying its damndest to break the Austrian bike manufacturer’s stranglehold on the event.
Spain’s Joan Barreda Bort looked like he was well on the way to doing so for the factory Honda team when the bikers had a well-earned rest day at the half-way point of the rally. However a fall saw Barreda Bort lose the left handlebar on his bike on the first leg after the rest day as he amazingly managed to hold on to his overall lead despite having to ride the last 120 km of the stage with just the right handlebar.
Staying in the rally, however, was a losing battle for Barreda Bort who ultimately had mechanical issues on his bike too and slipped down the order. Even though his bike was ultimately repaired enough for him to set competitive times again, the damage had been done.
FRUSTRATION FOR HONDA
The defecit to countryman Marc Coma was unsurmountable as the KTM rider carried on to his fifth career Dakar win. Honda’s Portugese rider Paulo Goncalvez salvaged something for Honda by finishing second overall but seven KTM riders classified in the top eight pretty much drove the point home.
Honda can, however, claim to have played a part in a little bit of Dakar history as Spain’s Laia Sanz Pla-Giribert became the most successful female rider ever in the history of the Dakar.
Sanz finished ninth overall, which was an improvement of her previous best finish of 14th. It remains to be seen if the 30-year-old or another female who follows in her footsteps can emulate Jutta Kleinschmidt who also competed in the Dakar on a bike before winning it in a car in 2001.
Away from the two more high profile categories of the Dakar Rally, Poland’s Rafal ‘Super’ Sonik scored his first ever win in the quadricycle category while riding Yamaha’s all-conquering Raptor 700.
Ayrat Mardeev lead a 1-2-3 finish for Russian truck manufacturer Kamaz in the heaviest category of the Dakar. Logistically it could also be said that the truck category is also the most important one at the fabled cross-country event as the transport of goods, people and raw materials across vast distances is often the difference between a part of the world dictating how another is shaped.
THE LOGISTICAL TASK
It was no surprise, then, to see the category filled with European entrants who haven’t seemed to have lost a step in transporting such a ridiculously massive event like the Dakar half-way to the other side of the world.
India’s very own Tata Motors has recently jumped into the motorsport arena with it’s T1 Prima Truck Racing Championship. Although a more relevant foray into motorsport could have said to have been participating in the Desert Storm in 2012. Other Indian manufacturers have often stated their desire to take on the Dakar challenge, including Mahindra. Perhaps the increased relevance of the Dakar thanks to Santosh’s participation will lead them to look beyond just taking what have often been feeble stabs at events like the Desert Storm and the Raid de Himalya.