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Gimme two wheels, gimme four, gimme six... - An overview of the vehicles that participate in the epic Dakar rally

Published by Guillermo Rozas

In the last post we looked a bit at the history behind the legend that is the Dakar, and we toured around the South American route for the 2011 event. Now it's time to have a look at one of the most important aspects of the rally: the vehicles.

Although the Dakar has pretty clear rules about categories and types of vehicles, there is actually very little limitation on what you can drive around the rally (as long as it's safe). It's not unheard of a Citroën 2CV taking the start, and this year regulations are opening a new "alternative fuel" category. But always at the core of the Dakar there have been three broad divisions: bikes, cars and trucks.

P. Depoorter (BEL), KTM - Dakar 2009
P. Depoorter (BEL), KTM - Dakar 2009Credit: Guillermo Rozas / CC:BY-NC-SA

A motorbike is obviously any motorized vehicle with two wheels (well, except for the quads, that until very recently were on this category...). Riders are probably the most suffering participants of the rally, as they spend most of the time standing on the bike and have to do their own navigation, watching the path while they read the road book at 100 km/h in tricky terrain. Dakar bikes are of the enduro type, modified to be able to travel long distances carrying extra fuel, food and safety equipment. Following several years of domination from the 690cc KTM bikes, new rules impose a maximum of 450cc for the engines of the top drivers (they're more 'road relevant'...). As a result, credible challenges have been put up by Aprilia, Honda, Yamaha, BMW and others for 2011.

J. Riviere / D. De Charry (FRA), Nissan  - Dakar 2009
J. Riviere / D. De Charry (FRA), Nissan - Dakar 2009Credit: Guillermo Rozas / CC:BY-NC-SA

The cars are arguably the most recognizable participants, and it's where most of the manufacturers' money is involved. Many amateurs enter slightly modified production vehicles, but the top end is dominated by heavily 'improved' off-road machines. Carbon fiber bodywork, tuned engines and revised suspensions are the order of the day. The beginning of the twentieth century saw victory after victory for the official Mitsubishi team, fielding several evolutions of its Pajero/Montero model, but everything has changed since the rally moved continent. The Volkswagen Touareg became an unstoppable force in 2009 (first diesel car to win the overall race), and the withdrawal of Mitsubishi in 2010 because of the crisis left a hole that BMW and Nissan are trying to fill.

V. Chagin / S. Savostin / E. Nikolaev (RUS), Kamaz - Dakar 2009
V. Chagin / S. Savostin / E. Nikolaev (RUS), Kamaz - Dakar 2009Credit: Guillermo Rozas / CC:BY-NC-SA

And finally: the trucks. Yes, those mighty 5 tons plus, 3 meters high, 4x4 or 4x6 beasts. As any 'external' assistance is forbidden during the stages, most of the car and bike crews actually pay for some of the trucks to carry spare parts or mechanics into the race, and many top teams would even enter trucks with that sole purpose. But for the trucks that are there just for the racing the battle is as fierce as it is in all the other categories, with the added difficulty of the size. Changing a tyre is a massive job, digging a truck out of a sand pit is a huge work, and crashes are... well, you can figure it out. Originally born to 'deliver urgent cargo to regions of difficult access', the russian Kamaz-4911 has been the truck to have for several years now, at the expenses of MAN, GINAF, Iveco and Tatra...

An important point to make is that of safety: every vehicle must comply with very stringent safety rules (roll cages are obligatory in cars and trucks, as is safety clothing for riders). In case of problems, each vehicle carries several radio and satellite beacons that can communicate directly with the organization, even automatically and without the intervention of the crew. Medical helicopters are always ready to take off, and hospitals in the area are prepared in advance to receive any injured. Besides the race itself, when the vehicles are on connection roads they must follow all the local transit rules. There are always things that can't be foreseen, but every year safety improves a bit more. Let's hope that this year it will be enough.

All content in the series Dakar Preview 2011