Honda steps into the fray as an official motorcycle manufacturer to take the fight to KTM
The 2013 Dakar heads south between January 5 and 20 with an innovative course stretching from Lima to Santiago.
The release of the start list reveals a new twist in the battle for the honours, as Honda steps into the fray as an official motorcycle manufacturer to take the fight to KTM and Carlos Sainz combines forces with Nasser Al Attiyah in the hopes of challenging the powerful Mini trio led by Stéphane Peterhansel... All bets are off!
New heading, new bearings. The Dakar is ready to set off from the Pacific coast in Lima for the first time in its history.
For its 35th edition, it will follow the north-south direction which was so typical of its former stomping grounds but has not been used since it came to South America in 2009.
Peru's geography means that the pilots and crews will come up against the dunes from the first days of the race.
Chile will set the stage for the first duel in the desert and, after passing the Andes, Argentina will test the contenders' stamina with stages which are as gruelling as they are jaw-dropping.
This should be enough to sort the men from the boys and shake up the classification before the heroes are celebrated in Santiago on January 20.
Only a minority of the pilots of the 459 vehicles on the start line (representing a new record of 53 different countries) have a realistic chance of getting their hands on the trophies awarded on the finish podium opposite the Palacio de la Moneda.
But the list of favourites has got much longer in all the categories since last January. Among the motorcycles, the long-running hegemony of the Cyril Despres – Marc Coma duo could be challenged by the new official Honda team and its rider Hélder Rodrigues, who finished on the bottom step of the podium in the last two editions.
With Paulo Gonçalves and Spaniards Joan Barreda and Jordi Viladoms, Husqvarna is also aiming very high. And then there is Yamaha, which seduced Frans Verhoeven in addition to Olivier Pain and David Casteu, and welcomed back its old leader David Frétigné.
But the car category is where things really get too close to call. In the wake of last year's win with Stéphane Peterhansel and his Mini, X-Raid is fielding a star-studded team including Nani Roma and Krzysztof Hołowczyc, but rulebook amendments may have changed the state of play and now no-one knows if they still have an edge over the promising Toyotas of Giniel De Villiers and Lucio Álvarez (third and fifth in 2012, respectively), among other drivers.
Among those making a comeback, Guerlain Chicherit and his SMG buggy are also ready to step into the fray.
Big names who underperformed last year are also back in the fight for the top places, including Guilherme Spinelli (Mitsubishi), Christian Lavieille (Dessoude) and Matthias Kahle (Proto Mercedes).
In the truck category, the Ivecos of Team de Rooy handed the Kamazs their first defeat since 2007 and are hoping to build on this success with defending champion Gerard de Rooy, his cousin Hans Stacey and Italy's Miki Biasion.
Aleš Loprais and his Tatra are capable of outperforming Eduard Nikolaev and his Russian teammates once in a while, so he may be a kingmaker if he manages to end his drought.
Among the quads, the Patronellis will be putting all their eggs in Marcos' basket and hope he can see off the other 38 pilots on the start list, a second record in the 2013 Dakar!