It seems like Dakar is getting harder and harder. In the fifth year of the rally’s switch to South America, the routes have changed, the teams have changed, and the challenges are all new. So while it may be the least predictable race in the world, these are the few that stand the best chance of prevailing.
Stéphane Peterhansel/Jean Paul Cottret
Last year’s overall winner Stéphane Peterhansel returns in the formidable X-Raid Mini, looking for his fifth Dakar win in the Car category and eleventh class win including his motorcycle victories of the 90’s. Though Peterhansel was considered a master of the rally when it was held in Africa, his first three years competing in South America were plagued with bad luck and breakdowns. Heading up the Mini effort in 2012, however, Peterhansel finally broke through, running a flawless rally and leading from the fourth stage all the way to Lima. He can only hope for as much good fortune this rally, though, as there will be tough competition from inside and out of the X-Raid camp.
Krzysztof Holowczyc/Jean-Pierre Garcin
Krzysztof Holowczyc is in a perfect position to take his Dakar win. That’s good news for the X-Raid team, but bad for his compatriot Peterhansel. The Pole showed his speed in the early stages of the 2012 race, but was troubled by breakdowns and offs that dragged him down the time charts. And fast though he is, having retired from half of his Dakar attempts over the years Holowczyc will have to overcome any natural propensity to bin the Mini All4 Countryman to make it to Santiago at all. Still, he won at the Silk Way Rally this year, and he can do it again at Dakar.
Nani Roma has won Dakar on a bike, he has finished second in a car, but this year his goal is to take the top step of the podium in a Mini. The Spaniard followed Peterhansel home last year after scoring three stage wins and again proving his worth on four wheels. If the X-Raid entries are as close as they have been in the past, it will be Roma and Holowczyc with the best chance to usurp their team leader.
Nasser Al-Attiyah/Lucas Cruz
2012 was not a good Dakar for Qatar’s sporting icon. The WRC regular (and Olympic skeet shooter) Nasser Al-Attiyah mounted a disappointing defense of his Car class victory from one of Robby Gordon’s notoriously unreliable Hummers. Stopped dead in a salt pan mid-way through the rally with an irreplaceable broken engine band, Al-Attiyah decided 2013 would not be the same. So he created his own team, with his own vehicle. The Qatar Red Bull Rally team will start their two prototype buggies in Lima hoping that outright speed can overcome the delicacy of their rear-wheel drive chassis. It’s a gamble by 2011’s Car king, but also his only chance for another Dakar challenge.
Carlos Sainz/Timo Gottschalk
So who will join Al-Attiyah in his new buggy project? Why, his old rival, of course. “El Matador,” better known as Carlos Sainz outside of Spain, returns after a year’s hiatus in search of his former glory — a 2010 Car win. Though he fought Al-Attiyah wheel-to-wheel in his last Dakar appearance, Sainz was reportedly “happy” to join him as a teammate when the Qatar Red Bull team was put together just months ago. How these two will get along, facing stiff competition from the outside and the potential unreliability of their buggies, will be a story to follow in Dakar 2013.
Robby Gordon/Kellon Walch
America will be represented in Dakar 2013’s Car category by Robby Gordon — for better or for worse. Last year, the NASCAR regular was accused of intentionally re-routing the airflow from a tire-inflation system on his Hummer to the engine, and was duly excluded from the rally. Not that he missed out on much of a result, though, for he flipped the massive, rear-wheel drive machine forwards into a dune near the end of the rally and finished fifth. Nevertheless, he returns for another attempt, likely hoping to take revenge on Stéphane Peterhansel, who last year called him a “born cheater.” Gordon responded by saying that “Minis are for girls.”
Giniel De Villiers/Dirk von Zitzewitz
Giniel De Villiers could be the surprise of the rally. Already a winner with Volkswagen in 2009, De Villiers took up with an all-South African team for last year’s race and brought their Toyota Hilux home to an astonishing third place. Almost entirely trouble free, the Hilux made up for a slight lacking in pace with reliability and should be even more solid this time around. While he may not top stage times, look for De Villiers in the overall results as competitors drop out around him.
For ten years Gerard de Rooy watched Kamaz finish ahead of him. The second-generation Dutch truck racer could not break the Russian blockade in Africa or in the first years in South America. But in 2012, the blockade lifted. As the Kamaz team fell apart in Argentina, de Rooy’s Iveco surged ahead, pulling out a lead and holding it as his rivals battled for stage wins behind. In Lima, he crossed the line at the head of an Iveco 1-2, an impressive feat in the Italian company’s first ever win. Now he returns in an updated truck, intent on defending his title. But it is unlikely that Kamaz will make it as easy as in 2012, and de Rooy will face a much tougher challenge.
Hans Stacey/Ruf Detlef/Bernard Der Kinderen
2007 Trucks winner Hans Stacey came out of retirement and onto the podium last year. Joining his cousin Gerard de Rooy in the Iveco squad (a departure from his old MAN team), Stacey fulfilled the manufacturer’s 1-2 without winning a single stage. This year, he plans to change that. In the new Iveco Trakker chassis Stacey sees an opportunity to get out front, but it’s more likely that his greatest asset will be his unbeatable staying power.
Eduard Nikolaev/Sergey Savostin/Vladimir Rybakov
Going into the 2012 race, Russian manufacturer Kamaz had won eight of the last nine Dakars, and six of those with “Tsar” Vladimir Chagin at the wheel. But that year, he would only be watching, having retired and given way to Russian karting star Eduard Nikolaev . The whole Red Bull Kamaz team had high hopes for their new lead driver, but by the end of the rally, there was no denying it: Nikolaev had disappointed. He had collided with a car on Stage 5 and was immediately disqualified, ending Russia’s dominance in the Trucks category. So 2013 is his chance at redemption. There can be no doubt that Nikolaev is simmering over his undignified exit, and will be back with a vengeance to return Kamaz to the top, and maybe even become their new “Tsar of Dakar.”
Artur Ardavichus/Alexei Kuzmich/Nurlan Turlubayev
The all-Kazakh Kamaz, driven by relative newcomer Artur Ardavichus, made quite the impression last year; not just because it was third in class, but because it was the highest-placed representative of the Russian marque. Returning in the light blue of Kazakhstan’s state-owned business conglomerate Astana, Ardavichus will hope to take on the Ivecos and his Red Bull teammates again, and has a fair chance of returning to the podium.
Ales Loprais/Serge Bruynkens/Radim Pustejovsky
The last sight Ales Loprais has seen of the Dakar Rally was a Chilean ditch, upside down and through a shattered windshield. As he slept through the untimed transport section of Stage 5 last year, his navigator drove the Czech team’s Tatra of the road, flipping it on its head and leaving Loprais with two cracked vertebrae. But more importantly to the Czech, the rally was over. Now in his seventh attempt, Loprais and his small team have possibly their next-best shot at a win, after 2012’s devastating retirement from second.
Marc Coma versus Cyril Despres: the two have alternatively won every Dakar since 2005, and last year was Frenchman Despres’ turn to nose ahead of his Red Bull KTM teammate. Now he has a chance to win a solid consecutive victory this year, because Coma cannot even participate. Nursing a lingering shoulder injury sustained in October’s Morocco Rally, Coma will be sidelined and may have to watch his rival take an easy fifth victory. Despres is usually pretty flawless (only ever bested by Coma) and the best hope for other riders in the Bike class is that he falls prey to the natural (or mechanical) dangers of the rally.
American AMA champion Kurt Caselli got the chance of a lifetime when Marc Coma injured his shoulder. He got the call from KTM (whose Baja 1000 effort he helped to second place last year) to step in and back up Despres. A lifelong dream, this is Caselli’s first Dakar, so while he may have the motivation to impress, it may be a few stages until he is up to speed.
Portugal’s Helder Rodrigues has always been the man behind the KTM’s. Riding a Yamaha last year he followed the Red Bull team home, but has since been given the opportunity he needs to really challenge them: a team-leading position at Honda’s new factory program. Their CRF450 bike has only been tested, but based only on the brand’s reputation it will be a formidable machine. Rodrigues has been edging ever closer to Dakar victory since his ninth-place debut in 2006, and has stood third on the podium the last two years. He is surely capable of second in 2013, and his challenge will be to take on Despres — though that will depend on the quality of his new bike.
Casteu was once one of KTM’s best riders, and finished second in 2007. But a move to Sherco — a French trials bike builder — saw him frustrated with recurring mechanical problems and a general lack of pace. Now, with Helder Rodrigues moved to Yamaha’s rival manufacturer, Casteu has stepped up to lead the brand, and is focusing on a Dakar win in the next three years. If his career has not lost momentum since the switch to Sherco and South America he may fulfill that goal. Expect to see him on special stage podiums.
In American Rally Raid, Johnny Campbell is like a combination of Marc Coma and Cyril Despres. With eleven Baja 1000 wins he has cemented legendary status in SCORE racing and now looks to a greater challenge. That is what he will find in Peru. Campbell’s only real experience of Dakar was as a navigator for Robby Gordon in 2012, so his goal this time out will likely be to learn the race as a rider. Still, any care Campbell takes on his Honda can bring him up the order when others crash, and the Baja veteran might even find himself near the top five on his debut.
South America expects of its Bike class hero Francisco “Chaleco” Lopez. And he expects of himself, because the last two Dakars have been disasters. In 2011 Lopez approached the finish in Buenos Aires in a heroic third, but a breakdown in the final stage dropped him a single devastating place off the podium. In 2012 he retired halfway through as the rally entered his home country of Chile. Now, having abandoned his Aprilia bike for a Chilean-run KTM effort, Lopez will be riding to redeem himself.
The Patronelli brothers Marcos and Alejandro have dominated the South American Dakar, winning the past three races between them. But they did not plan on running this year. For reasons not quite understood by the press, both intended to sit out in 2013 and return next year. Until the last minute, when Marcos accepted a ride with Yamaha Argentina. He has always said that he does not run the Dakar to win, but it’s very likely that he may find himself in that position for the second time, without his brother to lead him.
Tomas Maffei is a relative newcomer to the rally, but in only his second attempt last year won four stages and followed the Patronelli brothers closer than anyone. With only one brother to deal with in 2012, second place should be his—if he can’t take the fight all the way to first.