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Those who go and those who stay behind - Previewing the Dakar rally with a look at the people taking part

Published by Guillermo Rozas

We already covered the route. We already looked at the machines. Can you guess what's missing? Yes: people. The people inside and outside the race that make the Dakar what it is.

Tell me who you are...

To take part of the Dakar it's not an easy challenge. The heat, the (very) long driving hours, the lack of sleep, require that men and women in the race have a strong physical and psychological preparation. Beside the obvious driving skills, the crews should have enough mechanical knowledge to fix their own vehicles alone in the middle of a special, and should excel at navigation in difficult off-road terrain. The road book for each day is released only the night before, with indications as vague as '3km N until a small isolated tree, then NW', and GPS is only allowed within 800m of one or two obligatory checkpoints at each stage. Wisdom is more welcomed than raw speed.

Being such a technical event, it's not strange that along the years several 'Dakar specialists' have arisen. The last five editions in the bike category have been a two way battle between the spaniard Marc Coma (2006 and 2009 winner) and the frenchman Cyril Despres (winner in 2005, 2007 and 2010), both riding for KTM. However, the new technical regulations bring new hopes of an open race, with several long time 450cc riders ready to step up for the main prize. Watch carefully for the chilean Francisco 'Chaleco' López (Aprilia), the portuguese Helder Rodrigues (Yamaha), and the french David Casteu (Sherco). I expect Coma to claim back the title (he was very p****d off last year), but the battle will be very close at the top.

The team to beat
The team to beatCredit: Guillermo Rozas / CC:BY-NC-SA

Last edition saw the podium in the car category fully taken by the VW factory team, with Carlos Sainz joining Ari Vatanen and Juha Kankkunen into the small circle of WRC and Dakar champions. It wasn't an easy drive for the 48 years old spaniard, who had to fight until the very end with the qatari Nasser Al-Attiyah in what was the closest final in the history of the race. This year they'll have the possibility to reedit that battle in two of the four all new VW Race Touareg 3 entered by the Red Bull sponsored team, and they won't be alone in the front. Robby Gordon's HUMMER, a big 'Baja'-like beast that perfectly matches the exuberant drive style of the american driver; and Joan 'Nani' Roma's Nissan Navara, a new car for the spanish 2004 Dakar motorbike winner, will both be trying to steal some partial wins. But the real challenge will come from BMW: after a couple of years penalized with reliability problems they're putting all their weight into it with a seven car team. Besides an experimental Mini All4Racing entrusted to frenchman Guerlain Chicherit, the flagship of the bavarian maker will be an upgraded BMW X3 CC. And, although the local public will be counting on the argentinean Orlando Terranova to do well, their secret weapon comes in the form of Stéphane Peterhansel, 'monsieur Dakar' himself. The frenchman will be in a mission to end a two-year drought and add a new year to his 9 previous titles (6 on bikes, 3 in cars)... My prediction: a very, very, fierce battle, full of dramas, but I feel 'El Matador' will retain his crown.

In the truck category, Dakar's official website rightly asks 'Who can beat the big blue?' The 'Tsar of the desert', russian Vladimir Chagin, is looking to win his seventh Dakar in 11 years for Kamaz, and at first sight the only credible challenge comes from his fellow countryman and teammate (and two times winner) Firdaus Kabirov. Behind them, a son and a nephew of former Dakar winners, dutchman Gérard De Rooy for Iveco and czech Alés Loprais for Tatra, will try to revive old glories and traditional names of the rally. And, perhaps, they'll hope to claim any leftovers from the Kamaz squad. Predicting Chagin's win doesn't get any points, so let's play another game: which will be the margin? I'd say 1h30 over second placed Kabirov, and more than 4hs over the rest.

On the other side of the fence

Gladiators, we salute you
Gladiators, we salute youCredit: Guillermo Rozas / CC:BY-NC-SA

Ever since I was a child I've had memories of seeing the Dakar on TV with my dad, admiring those adventurous men, dreaming about great landscapes and wishing I was there. By a quirk of fate years later the Dakar landed literally on my door when the first South American edition passed some 20 km from my parent's house. It was all that I was hoping for and more. The 2011 rally will be my third first-hand experience of the event.

In the African editions of the race local public was somewhat scarce, concentrated in the few towns along the path and complemented with some people here and there in the middle of the desert. The move to South America has brought a whole new level to the phrase 'Dakar public': just for the official start at Buenos Aires more than half a million people are expected every year, and the numbers for the full event are close to 4 million spectators on the roads. Two things conspire for this: countries were motorsport is almost a religion (Argentina specially), and easier access to the stages. As a consequence the organizers had to change their approach to the race and create predefined 'spectator areas' along each special, where people is encouraged to go and see the race in a safe and prepared spot. Of course, that doesn't prevent people from going to any place they want along the road, but it does a lot at reducing the risk for the public and the drivers.

But you don't need to be there (here) to taste some of what the Dakar has to offer. In the last editions the organizers have really embraced the new technologies and offer a very good official website, complete with live timing and the latest news at each stage, a YouTube channel, and Facebook and Twitter accounts. Even if you don't have TV coverage, the all-knowing Internet will make sure you don't miss very much of it (besides the thrill of actually being there, off course...)

So, now is over to you in the comments to finish this post. Are you interested in the Dakar? Are you going to follow it this year? Which are your predictions? I for one am off to see some videos from last year, to get in the mood... Bye!

Kick up some dust and get lost into the distance...
Kick up some dust and get lost into the distance...Credit: Guillermo Rozas / CC:BY-NC-SA

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