Competitors from no less than 34 nations today (Thursday) put the finishing touches to their preparations for the start of the 24th Total Arras-Madrid-Dakar Rally, which gets underway when the first of 170 bikes, 119 cars and 34 trucks leave The Place des Heros, in the centre of Arras (an administrative town with a population of 40,000 in the Nord Pas de Calais region of France) at 21.40 on Friday evening.
Ahead lie 17 gruelling days of motorsport in a route of 9,436 kms, with three special stages planned in Europe at Saint Maurice La Souterraine on December 28th, Chateau Lastours in the South of France on December 29th and then a final European stage near Madrid in Spain on December 30th . A further 11 stages will take place in Africa.
On New Year's Eve competitors head into a long liaison section from Madrid, through mainland Spain to the coastal port of Algeciras for the crossing to Morocco. The entire Dakar caravan will spend New Year's Eve under the stars in the Moroccan capital before the real meat of the action gets underway on New Year's Day.
Although the event is shorter than previous years, the route offers a mixture of rocky mountaineous terrain in Morocco and the traditional tricky desert stages in Mauritania, when the Dakar caravan crosses into the Islamic Republic on January 4th. This year's route features two loop stages, a pair of 'Marathon' sections, two stages without GPS navigational assistance and one bivouac where the use of bike spares is forbidden.
The list of entrants is one of the strongest in terms of size and quality ever to grace the world's leading off-road endurance event, with several World Champions and former winners set to tackle the arduous off-road extravaganza.
Six-times former winners Mitsubishi fields no less than four Pajeros and an L200 Pick-Up for the likes of defending champion Jutta Kleinschmidt, from Germany, the Japanese pairing of Kenjiro Shinozuka and Hiroshi Masuoka, Frenchman Jean-Pierre Fontenay and Portugal's Carlos Sousa.
Attempting to prevent the Japanese marque from taking a record-breaking seventh Dakar victory will be defending FIA World Cross-Country champion Jean-Louis Schlesser in a new diesel-engined variant of his Schlesser-Renault Kangoo and Spanish team-mate Josep-Marie Servia. Schlesser is convinced that the slight disadvantage of a reduction in power from the Renault's new powerplant will be offset by a reduction in the car's overall weight, as he bids to clinch the title he last won in 2000.
Team Nissan Dessoude has entered a pair of new Pick-Ups for the Belgian former FIA Group N World Rally Champion Gregoire de Mevius and record-breaking, six-times Moto winner Stephane Peterhansel. The Frenchman won the T1 category in 2001 for the Japanese marque and will be looking to extend his impressive and unequalled record in the Dakar. Parisien Thierry de Lavergne drives a traditional Terrano for the Saint Lo-based Team Dessoude operation.
Former Lancia and Peugeot works rally driver Bruno Saby wheels out a Prototype version of the Ford Ranger in which he intends to have taken victory in the Dakar by 2004, while established names such as renowned tarmac rally specialist Yves Loubet, twice Middle East rally champion Saeed Al-Hajri and the 1997 World Downhill Skiing Champion Luc Alphand all grace the entry list. There are also 16 Lease Plan Toyotas being driven by amateur drivers from as far afield as Argentina, Japan and the United States of America.
Meanwhile, the Motos section is likely to be dominated by the Austrian KTM operation with satellite teams from France, Spain, Germany and Italy running many of the world's leading enduro riders, such as Spaniard Juan 'Nani' Roma, defending champion Fabrizio Meoni, former winner Richard Sainct, Jordi Acarons, Chilean Carlo de Gavardo, South African Alfie Cox, Germany's Andrea Mayer, UAE Desert Challenge winning Frenchman Cyril Despres, Italian Giovanni Sala, Spaniard Isidre Esteve Puyol and Frenchman Jean Brucy. Following BMW's withdrawal from the endurance racing discipline, Sweden's PG Lundmark is the sole realistic hope of victory for the German marque.
No less than 29 trucks of various specifications will also take part in the FIA T4 categories, with official entrants from Tatra, Kamaz and Hino, while there will be more than 75 assistance vehicles crossing the route in various capacities and a fleet of helicopters and aircraft on the event to transport officials, media, medical and catering staff and team personnel.
The 24th Total Arras-Madrid-Dakar Rally draws to a close on Sunday, January 13th with a traditional 31 kms special stage around the Pink Lake and the finishing celebrations at Le Meridien in Dakar the same evening.