Sat, Jan 03, 2009 - Page 19 News List

New-look Dakar Rally braced for continental shift

AFP , BUENOS AIRES

Mitsubishi driver Nani Roma, left, signs an autograph for a fan during technical verifications prior to the Dakar Rally Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Thursday.

PHOTO: AP

This year’s Dakar Rally gets under way today with the grueling two-week event switched from terror-threatened Africa to South America and the region’s deadly love affair with high-speed.

Twelve months ago, the Dakar, for so long dogged by security concerns, was canceled at the last minute after four French tourists were killed by al-Qaeda-linked terrorists in Mauritania.

In response, the race has been switched to Argentina and Chile, a safe 7,000km from Senegal, but with the race’s character still intact, claim organizers.

“I have no doubt that this is still THE Dakar,” veteran race organizer Etienne Lavigne said. “The people who are taking part in the race know that this is THE Dakar. This race has been organized for 30 years. It attracts professionals and amateurs. Nothing in this has changed.”

Lavigne insisted that he was happy the race, which will end in Buenos Aires on Jan. 17, has not been renamed to accommodate its new home.

“Historically, it was called the Paris-Dakar, then changed to Dakar. It has crossed 30 countries. Just as you don’t change the name of a boat, the Dakar does not change its name,” he said.

This year’s edition is made up of 14 stages with 5,591km of specials in the total distance of 9,578km and will see 530 teams taking part in a race that, instead of desert and dunes, will tackle the Pampas and tracks in the shadow of the Andes.

Japanese manufacturer Mitsubishi is chasing an eighth successive title with Frenchman Stephane Peterhansel.

Peterhansel is aiming for a 10th personal crown to add to his six on a motorcycle and three in a car.

Peterhansel won in 2004, 2005 and 2007 with compatriot and former skiing ace Luc Alphand taking the 2006 title.

Japan’s Hiroshi Masuoka, the winner in 2002 and 2003, also returns for the event with Spain’s Joan Roma, a former champion in the motorcycle event, making up Mitsubishi’s four-car assault.

There will be added interest in Mitsubishi’s campaign in South America after the global financial crisis dealt a series of bodyblows to motorsport in Japan.

Honda recently quit Formula One and Subaru and Suzuki have announced they are pulling out of the world rally championship.

Mitsubishi’s main challenge will once again come from Volkswagen whose four-car bid will be spearheaded by former double world rally champion Carlos Sainz — no stranger to South America having won the Rally of Argentina in 1992, 2002 and 2004.

South Africa’s Giniel de Villiers, Germany’s Dieter Depping and Mark Miller of the US make up the Volkswagen team.

In the motorcycle section, KTM dominates with France’s Cyril Despres, the 2005 and 2007 champion, likely to tussle with Marc Coma of Spain, the 2006 winner, for the title.

Meanwhile, Lavigne would not commit the rally to an eventual return to Africa.

“The Dakar in the past has gone through Algeria, Niger, Libya, Chad … and year by year, the territory for the race has been reduced,” he said.

“We talk a lot about the threat from al-Qaeda. Last September, 12 Mauritania soldiers were kidnapped and beheaded,” he said. “That’s a country we went to 30 times. I cannot take people to these countries.”

Argentina, meanwhile, will present its own particular challenges.

On average, 22 people a day die on the country’s roads.

From January to August last year, 5,427 people were killed in car crashes.

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