THE Dakar Rally raid gets underway today in Buenos Aires, with some 420 entries set to tackle what is probably the toughest motor challenge on the planet – 9,000 kilometres of mostly off-road terrain in Argentina, Chile and Bolivia.
There are four categories of competitor: Bikes, Quad, Car and Truck.
The Dakar was dreamt up by motorbike racer Thierry Sabine after he got lost in the southern part of the Sahara desert on the 1977 Abidjan-Nice Rally. Realising that navigating the remote sand dunes of a desert posed drivers and bike riders with a unique challenge, he organised the inaugural event which left Paris in December 1978. It gets its name from the capital of Senegal: the rally used to run 6,200 miles from Paris to Dakar. Since 2009, unrest in Africa, particularly Mauritania, means it has taken place in Argentina and Chile.
The only way to complete the Dakar is through a combination of endurance and determination. The competitors will have an additional problem to resolve: adopting and maintaining the right momentum, while the route continuously endeavours to break it. Depending on the day, both the setting and the pace will change, moving from rocky routes to desert dunes and from endurance stages to extreme sprints.
Given the competitors’ inability to recognise clearly identified sections, in particular they must capitalise upon their ability to adapt… and to control their stamina. The marathon stages will certainly remind them of this basic rule of off-road races.
The Dakar tests competitors and their vehicles in extreme endurance. The marathon stages, where drivers cannot use their assistance teams, are a particular test of their ability to independently manage their mechanics. This year, cars and trucks, which have not taken part in a marathon stage since 2005, will have to tackle this additional difficulty.
Split over two days, a marathon stage involves some of the competitors spending the night in an isolated bivouac. The vehicles are taken into a closed area, where only help between competitors is authorised. Despite the technical challenge which this constraint represents, the drivers also enjoy a different, highly convivial atmosphere. In Uyuni, it will be the car teams which will spend a night apart, followed by the motorcyclists and quad bikers the next day. The truck category will have its own dedicated bivouac in the middle of the Atacama Desert.
To make organisation of the marathon stages possible, a new system has been set up at the heart of the extended stay in Iquique. So, on January 11, three races will take place on three different routes and in two countries. This meant there was also a need to incorporate staggered rest days for the motorcyclists and quad bikers.
For several years now, the organisers have used their in-depth knowledge of the South American terrain to refine the routes and offer specific features for each category. For the 2015 edition, the motorcyclists and quad bikers will face an additional difficulty, with a particularly dense second week: four marathon days in total. 35% of the kilometres they cover without the cars and trucks will be in the form of special stages.
Different routes and rest days also gives the car teams the opportunity to fully demonstrate their potential, both in terms of driving and navigation. With 1,382km of open space (a third of the special stages) the cars will be able to compete without being slowed down by overtaking… and will also enjoy routes on virgin terrain. The truck drivers will find themselves in this situation for more than 600km.
Attempts to finish the Dakar in a Beetle date back to the 1980s but have never been successful. Stéphane Henrard is back at the Dakar after a hiatus spent developing a Beetle he believes is capable of handling the dunes: the DunBee.
Everyone in Mexico has heard of the Beetle’s exploits. However, Henrard has spent several years putting together a Beetle like no other, and is now ready to embark on his quest.
All that hard work in the Belgian tuner’s workshop has paid off in the shape of a Beetle codenamed DunBee, a portmanteau of ‘Dunes’ and ‘Beetle’.
Henrard is adamant that the technical challenge involved left him with no choice but to bide his time before bringing his latest brainchild onto the Dakar stage: “The DunBee made its debut in the Africa Race because it wasn’t made for the South American Dakar of the first few years.
“Now I’m sure the car’s mature enough and I also think the courses have changed. Our buggy’s got some experience under its belt and has what it takes to be fast and reliable. Now it’s time for it to prove its worth in the strongest field in the world of rally raid.”
Henrard has finished three times in the top 10 so far, which means the Beetle has a real shot at being in the mix. “The first step is finishing the race. I know it’s a cute, fast, little car, but there are about fifty cars out there capable of doing just as well. On the other hand, I’ve got the feeling anyone would be proud of driving this car. It just makes you want to jump behind the wheel.”
The rally will finish back in Buenos Aires on January 17th.