Asuncion, Paraguay – The 39th running of the Dakar Rally, starting in Monday 2 January in the Paraguayan capital, is shaping up to be an epic contest in both the two and four-wheeled categories.
The car race promises to be the best in years with a number of South African-built Toyota Hiluxes and a team of Minis from BMW’s M skunk works lining up to challenge the works Peugeots that dominated the 2016 Dakar from start to finish.
Rally raid veteran Giniel de Villiers, 43, from Stellenbosch is, however, the only South African car driver this year, following the withdrawal of Leeroy Poulter following major surgery. Reading the notes for De Villiers in their Gazoo Racing Red Bull Hilux will be regular German navigator Dirk von Zitzewitz – and their stated goal is to add a Hilux win to their 2009 victory in a Volkswagen Touareg.
One of their biggest challenges, however, will be to beat their new team-mate, double former Dakar winner Nasser Al Attiyah from Qatar – who De Villiers says is the fastest driver in the race.
“It forces us to raise our game,” said the South African, “and that’s a very good thing!”
Al Attiyah, perhaps diplomatically, was more worried about the Peugeots, saying: “Let us not forget that we are not a factory stable and the altitude factor must be taken into account, so the favorites are the turbocharged Peugeots with four formidable drivers.”
Among the long list of drivers in Hiluxes built in Glynn Hall’s Midrand workshop are Zimbabwean Dakar rookie Conrad Rautenbach – a former SA Rally champion – with South African navigator Rob Howie, as well as former Dakar motorcycle winner Nani Roma, Frenchman Ronan Chabot and Dutch driver Erik van Loon.
But to win the Dakar will mean beating a works Peugeot team that includes 12 times Dakar winner (yes, you read that right – six wins on motorcycles and six in cars) Stefan Peterhansel, backed up by nines times WRC champion Sebastien Loeb, double WRC title-holder and Dakar winner Carlos Sainz, multiple Dakar motorcycle winner Cyril Despres and former F1 driver Romain Dumas – talk about a star-studded cast!
"The Dakar has evolved a lot,” said Peterhansel. “I won it on bikes and cars; without GPS, then with different navigation technologies, in Africa then in South America, and now with Peugeot, but the key to the race remains the same: endurance.”
And with four wins in the past five years, you ignore the Mini squad at your peril, including as it does Dakar experts Orlando Terranova and Yazeed Al Rajhi, as well as WRC star Mikko Hirvonen – who was delighted with fourth on his Dakar debut in 2016.
“With that experience behind me and if we can make even fewer mistakes, I hope to do better and even chase for the win,” he said. "Of course, it will not be simple against Peugeot and Toyota, but if there is more navigation this year, it is possible."
The motorcycle category is crowded with Dakar veterans from Europe and South America, all itching to take the title away from Aussie Toby Price, who came out of nowhere in 2016 to win the world’s toughest motorsport contest at only his second attempt.
"Winning in 2016 means the target is on my back,” Price admitted. “Everybody is going to be gunning for me – but, on the other hand, once you have won it once, you know you can do it!”
Price will head a strong KTM squad, backed by Slovakian rider Stefan Svitko, runner-up in 2016 – who has no intention of playing second fiddle, saying: “For me, the only motivation is the victory, so I battle with my heart.”
But perhaps the KTM rider commanding the most respect from Dakar veterans and rookies alike will be 13 times women’s World Trials champion and five times women’s World Enduro champion, Spanish rider Laia Sanz.
Sanz has competed in the Dakar every year since 2011 and has never failed to finish (despite a huge crash and an injured hand on her Dakar debut), winning the women’s motorcycle category every time and finishing ninth overall in 2015 – the highest placing ever by a woman.
And she’s only 31 – her best rally raid years are still ahead of her!
Her compatriots Gerard Farres Guell and Armand Monleon, who finished 8th and 10th respectively in 2016, are keen to improve on their results, while Slovakian rider Ivan Jakes will be looking for another top 10 finish in 2017, and 2016 stage winners Mattias Walkner from Austria and Briton Sam Sunderland will be aiming to finish the Dakar for the first time!
Austrian manufacturer KTM has won the Dakar each year since 2001; top of the list of bike makers and riders aiming to end that winning streak are Honda and Spanish rider Joan Barreda Bort, who dominated early on in 2015 and 2016. He’ll be backed up by American Ricky Brabec, Frenchman Michel Metge and Portuguese veteran Paulo Goncalves, in Honda's attempts to win the Dakar for the first time since 1989.
The last time a Yamaha took Dakar honours was Stephane Peterhansel's final motorcycle win in 1998; this year Helder Rodriguez and French rider Adrian van Beveren, fifth and sixth respectively in 2016, lead the blue charge, backed up by Italian Alessandro Botturi and French rider Xavier de Soultrait.
But there are two more specialist off-road bikemakers in the picture: Rally Raid Motorcycle world champion Pablo Quintanilla, from Chile, will be leading the Husqvarna attack, hoping to improve on his fourth in 2015 and third overall in 2016. He’ll backed up by Jacopo Cerrutti from Italy. And then there are Juan Pedrero Garcia from Spain and Frenchman Adrien Metge, each on a Sherco TVS; ignore them at your peril.
The 2017 Dakar Rally will start in Asuncion on Monday with a short (only 454km!) stage to Resistencia in northern Argentina. The next day the race will continue into the Andes, through Bolivia to the capital, La Paz, for a rest day on Sunday 8 January, before turning south to the finish in Buenos Aires on Saturday 14 January.