Following the 35th running of the Dakar Rally for the past two weeks has been highly entertaining to say the least. The Dakar never fails to provide drama, controversy and exciting competition. From the first day in Lima, Peru the challenge was relentless and unforgiving, for many competitors disappointment came early. By the end of the two weeks the field was decimated — only 67 per cent of the entries rolled into Santiago, Chile last Saturday. Conditions this year also went to extremes. The sand seemed softer, the dust thicker, the days longer and the heat more intense — up to 40 degrees Celsius in some cases. In fact Mother Nature played a factor this year when rain and resulting flash floods caused some competitors to get stuck in mud and the race course was shortened to avoid rising water in the normally dry river beds.
Canadians who entered were not spared. Montreal-based David Bensadoun had his Desert Warrior’s engine expire not 30 kilometres into the second day. It was devastating to read the news, I am sure David will carry the disappointment for a long time but he has already begun planning his return. For B.C. resident Don Hatton, his fifth attempt at a Dakar finish ground to a halt in the soft sand dunes during the night of the 3rd stage. One of the large trucks ran over his bike laying prone in the sand and damaged it. Hatton tried to continue but struggled in the darkness until he finally conceded from exhaustion.
The car race was a stacked deck with many former winners entered in various types of vehicles, including former Dakar winners Carlos Sainz and Qatar’s Nasser Al Attiyah who teamed up to drive U.S.-built two-wheel-drive buggies that became known as “Bugglies” because of their ungainly appearance. The Bugglies surprised many by their strong performances early on. Sainz had his share of problems and won only one stage but Al Attiyah won three stages — ultimately both the Buggly engines quit — sending the two drivers home early. Ever the showman Robby Gordon didn’t fail to entertain. Problems in the first two days of the rally were minor setbacks compared to the time he lost when his Hummer landed on its roof in the sand dunes and the American hothead lost more than five hours waiting for new radiators in order to be able to continue. Gordon went on to win two competitive stages and placed in the top three frequently after his teething problems.
It is noteworthy that in an effort to make the world’s toughest motor sports event more competitive the organizers implemented rule changes to level the playing field between the two and four-wheel drive cars. The new rules seemed to work — seven of the 14 competitive stages were won by two-wheel-drive vehicles.
The battle for the overall win was between the BMW Mini X Raid team and the Toyota of South African Giniel De Villers. France’s Stephane and his Mini Countryman stamped their mark of authority on the Dakar once again fending off all challengers with precise driving, infallible reliability and masterful strategy. The now 11-time Dakar winner Peterhansel claimed he only made one mistake — second-guessing his navigator’s decision and leading them off-course for a few kilometres. At the midway point in the two-week adventure he had some 40 minutes on his nearest rival, after that it was his race to lose. A model of patience and consistency Peterhansel won only two stages and rarely put a wheel wrong in 8,000 kilometres of driving proving that consistency wins the race in the Dakar.
De Villiers placed second improving by one position over last year and remaining philosophical on the team’s future stating they learned from their weaknesses and will come back stronger. Third place went to Leonid Novitskiy also in a Mini — which is an excellent result for the Russian.
The motorcycle race was much closer in comparison to the cars. Early on, the bike race was led by Frenchman Olivier Pain on his Yamaha then by his teammate David Casteu. Ultimately last year’s winner Cyril Despres took over at the top of the leader board and held a slim lead to the end. Despres had a heart stopping moment nearing the rest day when his KTM lost top gear going into the second day of a marathon stage that dictates that the riders have no overnight outside support. An engine change also carries a 15-minute penalty. Despres managed to convince a Polish KTM-rider Marek Dabrowski to swap engines with him and in a great display of sportsmanship the engine change was completed with the help of Canadian rider Patrick Beaule.
Since the rule change mandating the motorcycle’s engine capacity to a maximum of 450cc was put into place the challenge to complete the Dakar has a new twist. With each engine change comes a 15-minute penalty and the great distance of the Dakar meets and sometimes exceeds the service life of the smaller, more fragile engines. Riders must ride with a strategy in mind — that of maintaining an easy pace and giving up time or riding faster effectively shortening the life of their engine.
This year was Despres’s fifth win overall in 12 attempts and the motorcycle podium was completed by the Frenchman’s teammate and support rider Portugal’s Ruben Faria and Chilean Carlos Lopez. The motorcycle class saw flashes of brilliance from a number of different riders who claimed stage wins including Spain’s Joan Bareda on a Husqvarna and USA’s Dakar rookie Kurt Caselli who won two daily special stages.
Quebec’s Patrick Beaule became the first Canadian to complete the Dakar twice now on a motorcycle and in a car last year. Not without problems of his own, Beaule’s KTM quit at the end of day four and he was towed into the bivouac 320 kilometres by fellow competitor Italian Andrea Fasani. An engine change fixed the problem and judging by his daily results Beaule appeared to ride more conservatively after the incident. In the end he finished in 62nd position and proposed marriage to his girlfriend on the finisher’s podium.
The large truck class had some dramatic episodes take place as well, this year the Russian Kamaz trucks swept the podium, but not without strong opposition from Dutchman Gerard de Rooy. De Rooy was fastest most of the time and was in the lead but a mechanical breakdown set him back to sixth place. These behemoths often are entered in the Dakar to provide support to the cars and bikes, once entered they can follow the race course and if a catastrophic failure takes place they can reach the competitor. Often the mechanics / truck competitors are the unsung heroes of the Dakar. Once such case of flying under the radar is Yvan Turcotte of Mirabel, Quebec. As part of David Bensadoun’s technical crew Turcotte was the navigator in the Aldo Racing / Rallye Raid UK support truck and he became the 9th Canadian ever to finish the Dakar. The MAN truck is listed in 55th position finishing some 86 hours behind the winning truck having towed an Egyptian team out the desert resulting in 50 hours of penalties.
Now Dakar-withdrawal syndrome comes into effect. For the next few months productivity will increase among Dakar fans. Until news of next year’s Dakar is released we are left to reflect on yet another life-altering event that tests the mettle of all who dare to take it on.