Rain makes Dakar start even tougher

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IOL mot pic Jan3 Dakar 2014 Cummings 1 Reuters South African rider Brett Cummings works on his KTM in miserable conditions at Rosario to prepare it for technical inspection bofore the start of the 2014 Dakar Rally. Picture: Enrique Marcarian

With the start of the world's toughest motorsport event less than 48 hours away, just getting to the start has proved to be a challenge for some of the competitors. A total of 438 drivers from 52 nations have entered are the 2014 Dakar Rally, which will take them about 9000 kilometres across the Andes and the Atacama Desert before finishing in Valparaiso, Chile, on 18 January.

Four the past few weeks Rosario, Argentina's third-largest city and the starting point for the 2014 Dakar, has been in the grip of its worst drought for 40 years, so the locals were as delighted as the competitors (especially the bikers) were dismayed when technical inspection opened at 8am on New Year's Day in the middle of a violent thunderstorm, followed by torrential rain.

And by D-2 on Friday morning, the last day of scrutineering, it was still raining, and a number of entrants were still waiting for a break in the weather before venturing out to the technical marquee, leading to concerns over a possible last-minute rush.

JUST IN TIME

The riders of the Chilean Tamarugal team, including leading quad rider Ignacio Casale and the Prohens brothers on motorcycles, landed at Buenos Aires on schedule, only to discover that their flight to Rosario had been cancelled.

So, after battling to find a bus big enough to take the team and their gear (the bikes and the quad were already in Rosario) they set off on a day-long journey by road, to reach the Rosario paddock just in time, shortly before sunset.

IOL mot pic All Dates Dakar 2014 Route Map The route will take competitors 9374km across the Andes and the Atacama Desert before finishing in Valparaiso, Chile, on 18 January.

Top motorcycle contenders Alain Duclos and Juan Pedrero, both works rider for French manufacturer Sherco, arrived early, a couple of days before the weather broke.

Their team manager Nicholas Chaix, however, couldn't even land at Buenos Aires - his flight was diverted to Montevideo, where he had a three-hour delay before he could catch a regional flight to Pistarini airport near Rosario.

"The funny thing is," he grinned, "for the rest of the year I'm a captain on these same planes!"

Despite the weather, however, about 30 percent of the racers and their machines (mostly locals) went through scrutineering on the first day, with only a small backlog left for Thursday morning.

Marcos Patronelli, the top Argentinian entry thanks to two previous wins in the quad category, nevertheless stressed that "this is going to be a very demanding Dakar".

For some of the competitors, it already has.

Meanwhile, the human factor this threatening to make a tough route even tougher for the two-wheelers.

Aymara Indians are vowing to block Dakar Rally competitors from Bolivia's high-altitude salt flats, where president Evo Morales is hoping the world's hardest rally will boost tourism.

The organisers of the race, are permitting only motorcycles and quads on to the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flats in the world. Cars and trucks will take a more direct route from Argentina into Chile on 12c and 13 January.

While some Aymara back the race, others fear the crowds of spectators will leave piles of litter and the racers will carve deep marks into the shiny white surface.

Morales, himself an Aymara, wants the brief Bolivia leg to bring attention to one of the world's most remote and beautiful places.

The Salar de Uyuni is 3600 metres above sea level and stretches over more than 11 000 square kilometres. It's a breeding ground every November for South American flamingos, and the briny water under the lake's hard surface has high concentrations of lithium, which is mined for batteries.

Rain is expected during the Bolivia leg, which could leave a sheen of water over the crusty surface and create what seems like an endless mirror. But that liquid also could soften the salt, increasing the risk that heavy vehicles could break through hard layers that have built up over thousands of years.

Cars commonly cross the salt flats.

SUVs carry tourists and pickups supply salt harvesters and lithium operations, but they generally avoid the lake when it's covered with water, which is why the Dakar Rally cars and trucks will detour.

Dakar Rally chief Etienne Lavigne said: “It's a precipitous route, there could be water on the surface of the salar, and there's only one lane for all the vehicles, which doesn't allow for cars and trucks.”

Bolivian environment and water minister Jose Zamora said his agency was preparing an environmental permit and would protect the area's natural beauty. Meanwhile, the government also was sending troops to keep a close watch over the Bolivian stages of the rally. - Sapa-AP



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