The 2016 motorsport calendar kicks off with the gruelling Dakar rally in South America and the debut of Sebastien Loeb will only add to the allure of the fabled event.
It would be grossly unfair to delineate the challenge Dakar presents, without actually taking part in it as a competitor. Every year, hundreds of speed junkies, best described as lunatics, converge in South America for the toughest cross-country rally of all. Only those who make it to the finish line can give you a rough idea of just how tough it is, if the English dictionary is vast enough to provide them with appropriate words and phrases.
For, in its current iteration, the Dakar route passes through some of the toughest terrain found on planet Earth. The rally will kick start in the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires, move to the neighbouring country of Bolivia, before returning to Argentina for the remaining stages.
In all, drivers and riders across four categories will cover around 9,000 km, out of which about half will be timed in form of special stages. Dakar also has a concept of ‘marathon stages’ wherein external assistance is prohibited.
Loeb makes Dakar debut
Sebastien Loeb is one of the most popular figures in the rallying scene, having won nine consecutive titles for Citroen in WRC.
More recently, he has been looking for newer pastures. In 2013, he ditched dirt for tarmac, driving a McLaren 12C in FIA GT series. Two years in World Touring Car Championship (WTCC) followed, yielding six wins and a solitary pole position.
But 2016 will see Loeb take on a challenge like no other. The Frenchman will cross the Atlantic for his debut outing in Dakar, forming an indispensable part of Peugeot’s driver-lineup that will also include veteran rally driver Carlos Sainz.
After an uninspiring return to Dakar in 2015, Peugeot has high hopes for 2016 with its highly modified vehicle, christened as the 2008 DKR16. The car is longer and wider and takes full advantage of its lower centre of gravity. The 3.0-litre, twin-turbo engine produces more power than it did a year ago, while considerable improvements have been made on the driveability front.
Considering the kind of opposition it is going to face in form of Mini, the upgrades were more than required. The British brand’s charge will be led by reigning winner Nasser-Al Attiyah, who banged wheels with Loeb in WRC in 2012. And while Loeb may have come on top at that occasion, this time he is entering the Qatari’s territory.
Another noteworthy driver making his Dakar debut this year is Mikko Hirvonen. The Finnish driver raced in the shadows of Loeb during the latter’s dominant era in WRC. But with both drivers taking part in the rally for the first time, the reset button has been pressed.
Among the bikers
Competing in Dakar astride a bike is an even harder task. Not only you don’t have a navigator besides you who can guide you through the twisty routes, you also have to face whatever conditions the weather throws upon you.
Fortunately, the 153 riders who will line up in Buenos Aires for the flag off ceremony won’t be battling against Marc Coma, the five-time Dakar winner who has moved to the position of sporting director in the administration department.
Theoretically, his absence should blow the field wide open. But in all probability, the winner will most probably be riding a KTM bike. The Austrian manufacturer dominated the South American rally last year, occupying seven positions in the coveted top 10. Yamaha and Honda occupied the remainder of the three places between them.