Richard Sainct will be sorely missed at the 2005 Dakar Rally and Nani Roma has followed Stephane Peterhansel to cars, but there is still no shortage of challengers ready to claim this year's bike title.
The two leading contenders are now, without a doubt, Cyril Despres and Alfie Cox. This duo battled until the bitter end of the 2004 Dakar, finally finishing third and fourth, respectively, behind Roma and Sainct.
Despres, who will ride the #2 KTM with Roma's move to cars, is still looking for his first Dakar victory. He has been named the lead driver on the powerful Gauloises KTM team, with support from Cox, Jean Brucy and two-time Dakar winner Fabrizio Meoni. Cox's best Dakar result to date is a second place in 2002, while Brucy has a fourth place to his credit from 2000.
The third top KTM team is the Spanish Repsol-Red Bull organization, with Marc Coma and Isidre Esteve Pujol. Pujol was one of Ullevalseter's chief rivals in the 2004 FIM championship fight, and took victories in Rallye Maroc and the UAE Desert Challenge.
Looking to improve from a 10th-place finish in the 2004 event is Jacek Czachor, the lead driver for Orlen Team, also with KTM. Czachor showed a great deal of consistency in the FIM championship, and finished second in the title fight, just ahead of his teammate, Marek Dabrowski. Dabrowski's best Dakar finish is a 9th place in the 2003 event.
Fretigne will again be riding the Yamaha WR450F 2-Trac, which is attempting to revolutionize motorcycle rallying with all-wheel drive, much the same way as the Audi Quattro did some 20 years ago. KTM has also recognized the potential of the Yamaha 2WD concept, and is working on a 2WD bike of its own for future events.
With Yamaha focusing solely on the Dakar and not other FIM cross-coountry events, though, it is hard to say whether Fretigne and the WR450F are ready to challenge for the overall win this year -- we will need to wait for the desert stages to see who are the real contenders this year.
One interesting note is that the KTM 950 bikes are nowhere to be seen on the 2005 entry list: the new Dakar regulations limit bikes with more than one cylinder to 450 cc, thus effectively banning KTM's "big" V-twin bike. However, KTM's bread-and-butter 660 cc single-cylinder model is still legal, and the weapon of choice for more than 150 entrants.