Considered the most dangerous race on the planet, the Dakar Rally starts today with 378 drivers taking part in the second edition staged in South America because of security concerns.
Dunes, desert, mountains and other hostile terrain lie in wait for 138 cars, 161 motorbikes, 29 quads and 50 trucks in the 16-stage race that covers 9,030km across Argentina and Chile before finishing on Jan. 16 in Buenos Aires.
Last year’s winner, Ginield De Villiers of South Africa, leads the favorites. The 2009 champions in other categories also return: Spanish motorbike rider Marc Coma, Czech quad driver Josef Machacek and Russian truck driver Firdaus Kabirov.
The symbolic start of the race was due to take place yesterday, with a 349km drive from emblematic Buenos Aires monument, the Obelisk, to the city of Colon.
Racing begins today from Colon with a 684km first stage to Cordoba. Drivers then head to La Rioja and Fiambala in Argentina before going to Copiapo on Jan. 5, the first Chilean city to host the Dakar, followed by Antofogasta, Iquique, La Serena and Santiago.
The race returns to Argentina, passing through San Juan, San Rafael, Santa Rosa and finally Buenos Aires. The only rest day in the 32nd edition of the Dakar Rally will be on Jan. 9.
Teams from Volkswagen and BMW are the favorites. Volkswagen boasts De Villiers, as well as former world rally champion Carlos Sainz from Spain.
BMW will have French driver Stephane Peterhansel behind the wheel, a six-time champion on motorbikes and three-time winner in cars of the Dakar Rally in Africa, plus Nani Roma of Spain.
“The Dakar is the hardest race in the world, you have to work hard and suffer a lot,” said Roma, the 2006 winner. “But when you get to be champion, it’s worth it.”
Sainz, meanwhile, will be looking for revenge after leading the race last year before being forced to retire following an accident, apparently due to an error in the map produced by the race authorities.
“I’m worried about the road book being correct,” Sainz said. “It’s such a long race over so many days that you run into all sorts of obstacles. You have to be patient and prudent to solve them.”
Safety will be an important feature after Pascal Terry died in the last race. The French motorcyclist died of a pulmonary edema on Jan. 7 in the second stage between Santa Rosa and Puerto Madryn after reportedly only receiving help several hours after requesting it.
In another incident, Cristobal Guerrero of Spain had an accident in the 10th stage and spent several days in a coma.
Argentine quad driver Marco Patronelli said the stage between Neuquen and San Rafael last year was “terrible.”
“It looked like a movie,” he said. “At the side of the road were cars on fire, trucks turned on their sides. I was thinking: ‘What’s happening here?’ The cars accelerated even when they couldn’t see anything, they didn’t care. There was a lot of irresponsibility.”
To reduce accidents, organizers have decided to make motorbikes and quads race almost 100km less than the other vehicles, along with special sections to avoid crashes with cars and trucks and prevent the problems from last year.
“Those that are in the lead don’t care [about the crashes]. They look the other way and carry on,” said Patronelli, who came second last year. “You could be dying at the side of the road and they would pass by at top speed.”
The rally was moved to South America last year because of safety concerns.
The 2008 race was canceled after the deaths of four French tourists in Mauritania in December 2007. The deaths were linked to al-Qaeda. After the cancelation, organizers decided to move the race to South America.
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