30th Dakar awaiting green light
While a great many people across the world ate, drank and relaxed over the end of year festive period a select group of well-trained and courageous sportsmen made last minute checks and nervously counted the hours until the day they had to travel to Lisbon, Portugal on January 5th.
The 30th edition of the Dakar rally sees the largest entry list yet of 540 teams using motorcycles, quads, cars and trucks traverse the longest course to-date with over 9000km to be covered across Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Mauritania and Senegal in just fifteen days.
The third launch from the Portuguese capital will see 52 WR450F-engined Yamaha machines (bikes and quads) compete for positions and aspire to last the distance from a roster of more than 250 riders.
Not only hoping to reach Dakar in Senegal on January 20th but also ambitious of capturing a top finish in the motorcycle class -- as well as defend Yamaha's crown in the increasingly growing division for 450cc bikes -- are Frenchmen David Fr0x00e9tign0x00e9 and Michel Marchini and Czech Republic's Martin Macek.
In terms of results Fr0x00e9tign0x00e9 will be looking to match the heights of his 2005 attempt in which he took fifth position overall (an achievement that was repeated last year by Portuguese Helder Rodrigues). The WR450F has a fine tradition in the 450cc category with Fr0x00e9tign0x00e9 winning that particular section of the competition in 2004 and 2005. The bike was steered to victory again in 2007. Fr0x00e9tign0x00e9 led the 450s up until the seventh stage before sustaining a KO and Rodrigues went on to take the overall honours.
Five times French Enduro champion Fr0x00e9tign0x00e9 boasts seven stage wins in his Dakar career and will again be going up against motorcycles from 400cc to 690cc capacity.
"I expect a very technical Dakar in 2008, which maybe will allow riders on smaller motorcycles to make time," he said. "This gives a big hand to the 450 and it means that the bike could produce some surprises. When I first arrived at the Dakar in 2004 on the 450 people thought I was crazy. I have since won seven stages, two of which were in that first year. This time we must strive to make the difference with our navigation and the 2008 route seems to favour this aspect of the rally. I was really close to the podium in 2005 and missed it by only a few minutes. Therefore for 2008 I will be aiming for a place among the leading trio. I want to prove that a 450 can have a place on the podium."
The Yamaha Europe backed team of Fr0x00e9tign0x00e9 and Marchini uses a six-wheeled truck, a 4x4 assistance vehicle. There are two drivers, three mechanics, a team manager and press officer.
Michel Marchini finished 7th and as the second best Yamaha rider in 2007. The Corsican is more than aware of the extreme task that faces him but insists the experience he has gained will stand him in good stead.
"Arriving in the first five would be the main goal," commented Marchini, "every year you get to know the land better, you can read the road book better and every little thing that is easier helps save time."
"The body becomes a machine," he added. "It is only necessary to eat, sleep and drink when you can."
39 year old Macek, from Smrzovka, was Yamaha's third highest finisher in 2007. He reached Senegal with 15th position overall in the bike category and was 6th in the 450s.
The Czech Enduro expert, who has an ambition to build an Enduro school/training area in his native country, stated that his aim for 2008 was to break into the top ten. He has assembled a suitable back-up squad and was testing in Tunisia during October.
In 2008 the fifteen days of action see the participants covering more than 500km a day on average (with just one rest day). The route consists of fifteen stages, each of which contains a 'special'. The 'specials' are timed and the subsequent results make up the race standings.
The longest stage takes place in Morocco at more than 800km. Entering Mauritania means a number of 'specials' across the dunes and terrain of the Sahara desert.
Aside from the competitive element of the specials (the riders and drivers are timed for almost 6000km in total, longer than the previous two Dakars) the 'liaisons' also have to be negotiated; a set distance until a vehicle completes a stage.
Although liaisons do not contain the pressure of a special, the added kilometres -- the most in Africa involves 326km through Mauritania on Day Fourteen -- increases the high endurance demands of the rally.
There are few motorsport competitions that push the limits and resolve of man and machine quite as hard as Dakar. Yamaha have a fantastic record in the rally with nine overall victories stretching back from 1979 and six successes thanks to Dakar 'legend' Stephan Peterhansel. Fr0x00e9tign0x00e9's first effort in 2004 saw the introduction of the famous '2-Trac' mono WR450F and he won three stages against the might of the twin cylinders.
The Dakar organisation is vast and the popularity of the event continues to grow. Almost 500 accredited media follow the rally and over 600 televised hours are beamed out from the desolate but beautiful depths of western Africa.