The Dakar rally was founded by Frenchman Thierry Sabine after he got lost on his bike somewhere in the Sahara. Apparently, he thought it would be fun to have lots of others start out in Paris France and try to find their way to Dakar Senegal. He coined an understated motto: “A challenge to those who go, a dream to those who stay behind.” For me, this race is the offroad equivalent of the Isle of Man TT. It is one of the last raw, brutal, dangerous races left on the planet. You can’t fake this one, and driver/navigator/rider skill, endurance, and cajones are as influential to the outcome as the equipment. The race is now in South America due to the many non-race-related dangers of Saharan Africa, but little else has changed.
It is little wonder that only tough customers with tough equipment come out on top. Top contenders in the car segment have included a number of WRC champions including Ari Vatanen and current contender Carlos Sainz who might have won last year if not for a spectacular crash. Another leading contender this year is Stephane Peterhansel (King of the Dakar IMHO) who has previously won six times on a bike and three times in a car (!!). Jutta Kleinschmidt became the first woman to win in a car in 2001 after also competing on a bike for a few years. Nani Roma has also won on the bike and is now a challenger in cars for BMW. The bike category in 2010 includes Marc Coma and Cyril Despres who have swapped 1st and 2nd place a few times in recent years. It also includes American rider Jonah Street who surprised everyone on the bike a few years ago as a privateer and now is not so shoestring. It is quite incredible how guys and girl (there is only one) on bikes have transitioned to cars and won. I don’t know of any the other way around. I’m sure the relative comfort of the car makes the former bike riders feel like they are taking it easy! In any case, cars, bikes, Trucks, and Quads racing over the same course is unusual enough. Doing so over the most rugged terrain in the world makes for great racing.
This year’s race is spectacular so far, despite me having to watch on dakar.com or on versus.com due to the Directv flap. On the bikes, Despres is leading after defending champ Coma suffered a 6-hour penalty for an illegal wheel change. Coma denies the change, but the penalty dropped him to 24th. I was looking forward to these two battlings it out again, but the Dakar is one of the few races where a 6-hour gap is not insurmountable. Jonah Street is in the top 10. In cars, Peterhansel, Sainz, Roma, and American Robbie Gordon in his Hummer, are all in the top ten after 7 stages. In trucks, the Dakar “Tzar”, Russian Vladimir Chagin in his Kamaz is again leading the pack, but pursued by a hoard of contenders. The stuff of dreams….