There is one race that stands alongside the likes of the Le Mans and Daytona 24 Hours, the Baja 1000 and Indy 500 as a stand alone event so highly regarded that it doesn't need to be part of any championship... one where legends win, heroes finish and the rest dream only to take part in the event. Household names like Jacky Ickx, Ari Vatanen, Juha Kankunen and Stephane Peterhansel have conquered the deserts to hold the winner's trophy aloft while others have given their lives trying. Manufacturers such as Porsche, Mitsubishi, Peugeot, Citroen and Volkswagen have thrown their factory might behind teams and to win it takes as much effort, skill and dedication as the F1 world championship or the WRC.
It easily attracts superlatives to itself with ease like the biggest, longest, hardest, and for anyone who has an idea about what is involved to get to the finish there is just one word to suffice: the ultimate. It can be no other event. It is The Dakar.
Thirty-three years have passed since Terry Sabine first led a motley collection of adventurers across the Saharan sands to the Senegalese capital and it quickly rose in prominence to become what it is today... one of the toughest proving grounds of man and machines on earth.
Manufacturers using motorsport to promote their brands are rather thin on the ground these days, so in this regard the Dakar is no different from F1 or the WRC and only Volkswagen entered a works effort, rolling out four stunning Race Toureg 3s for past champions Spaniard Carlos Sainz and South African Giniel de Villiers. Their able partners were by quickly improving: ex-WRC Production Cup champion Qatari Nasser Al-Attiyah and ex Baja 1000 winner American Mark Miller. On paper at least the deep blue cars should have shot straight to the head of the leaderboard, especially with the sweeping curves of the Argentinean plains suiting WRC drivers Sainz and Al-Attiyah. But there was a fly in the Red Bull team plans.
One man never to be discounted in the Dakar is the winingest man in its history, one who has the word 'legend' emblazoned in his aura. He first won this event 20 years ago on a bike, a feat he repeated five more times before switching to four wheels, where he claimed three more victories. Even in a car that is no real match for the newest offerings from VW, Peterhansel was still in the reckoning and took a threatening second early on... until a tail of woes started to unfold which mainly took the form of punctured tyres on his X-raid BMW, but included navigation errors, electrical problems and a leaking radiator... and from then on the top of the leaderboard was only a VW story.
In the WRC, the only arena they'd met in before, Al-Attiyah has a single point to him name, whereas 'King Carlos' held the all-time record until the new scoring system came in. Yet under the Red Bull umbrella the relationship between the two of them is far from being mentor and prot?g? as many might think; the rivalry is a bitter one and every kilometre they drive is fraught with determination and utter commitment.
And it might be worth pointing out that the drivers have no pacenotes to aid them; all they have is a road book giving directions at junctions and warnings of dangers. Every single corner and single every crest was blind, every drop behind a dune was unknown and so every time you saw a shot of a car in the air or sideways kicking up the dust it was being driven with nothing but feeling, along with their trusted navigators.
The plains of Argentina gave way to mountain passes and then to the dunes of Chile and the Atacama desert, one of the most inhospitable places on earth. Towering dunes, kilometres high, stretch away seemingly without end until suddenly they give way at the Pacific Ocean and drop from 2500 meters to the sea down a 2.5km drop at a 32 degree angle. Epic.
After the first week of competition Sainz was in the lead, but only by a scant 1'22 over Al-Attiyah. Behind them the field had thinned out with Robby Gordon's day-glo Hummer effort coming to an ignominious end when an axle bearing went... the failure of a tiny part scuppering the whole effort. Another pointless retirement was that of Guerlain Chicherit who completely destroyed the beautiful X-Raid Mini Countryman while taking it for a test drive on the rest day.
A man who had a very solid event was Poland's Krzysztof Holowczyc. I heard performance, which included a second place stage finish, described as 'surprising' but this doesn't do the Polish driver justice. He is an ex-Wrc driver, European rally champion and won the 2010 Baja International Cup, beating two-time champion Boris Gadasin in the process, so his eventual 5th place finish was a little more warranted than some people suggest.
Clinging grittily to the end of the top 10 for the whole of the second half of the event were Matiahas Kahle and Thomas Schuenemann in their outlandish looking 2 wheel-drive SMG buggy, in the same class as Gordon's Hummer. After the third day they were in 22nd place after bursting one more tyre than they had spares for, but despite smashing the suspension in the Atacama and burning out their wiring loom but when they made it back to Buenos Aires they were more than 6 hours ahead of their nearest class competitor and in an incredible 10th overall.
Back at the head of the field it was the second half of the event when mistakes started to be made by the leaders, but none came from Al-Attiyah as some might have been expecting, instead it came from his vastly more experienced team-mate Sainz. In Stage 7 he drove 600km faultlessly, but in the massive dunes right near the end made two crucial mistakes, needing to dig himself out both times and handing the advantage to Al-Attiyah. The next day the two of them were in determined mood and there some amazing footage of them weaving and blocking each other while flat out over the rough ground, but in the end it was a small dune, not much bigger than a couple of meters high that spelt the beginning of the end of Sainz's effort to defend his 2010 title. Fifteen minutes were lost as he waited with tow rope in hand for someone to extricate him from his beached position. The last nail in the coffin came the very next day though when running so close to Al-Attiyah he was blinded by his dust. Unseen hit a hole hard enough to rip the wheel off and from that moment all Al-Attiyah had to do was drive cautiously and concentrate... and the next stage, 555km high in up the barren mountains he claimed was the hardest he'd ever had to drive.
In the end it was a masterful display of a driver coming of age. A near faultless performance over the 14 days constantly driving on the fine line between speed and caution reaped a famous win ahead of a truly legendary team mate. A million people were in the capital Buenos Aires to see the finish and the confetti speckled podium covered in VW blue. De Villiers was gifted second after a strong, if quiet, run with Sainz in a third place he cared nothing for, even though the very last stage brought him a record 24th stage win.
If the snapshots on Eurosprt and the close times where drivers were fighting for seconds made you think that the stages were straightforward and pretty uneventful, you'd be very wrong. A 9500km route with 5000 of them competitive run over 14 days, 66% of the cars failed to make it back, as well as half the bikes and quads... the Dakar is, and always will be, the absolute pinnacle of off-road motorsport.
The Kamaz team are somewhat of an enigma. Their HQ is in a place called Naberezhnie Chelni... and I'm sure that I'm not alone in not knowing exactly where that is. At this time of the year snow has covered the ground for almost three months already and no one would be overly concerned if the thermometers showed -25. Yet the men from this frozen land are the undisputed kings of the desert. Behind living legend Peterhansel there is only one other man who comes close to his record and that is the 'Tsar' Vladimir Chagin with six wins to his name in the truck class prior to the 2011 edition of Dakar.
However 2011 didn't seem to be the dominant performance we've been used to from recent years. He lost time with punctures and as the teams headed for the rest day he was languishing in 3rd place, some 30 minute behind the leader, his Kamaz team mate and fellow Russian Firdaus Kabirov. If anyone was ready to write him off, all the critics were silenced with a serious of stunning stage times that only the Master himself could produce. On Stage 8 for example, he posted the 5th fastest overall time behind the VWs! Stages 10 and 11 were the same, changing the deficit into a half an hour lead... one that he was not to loose. Now with 64 stage wins and seven outright victories Chagin is officially the most successful Dakar class driver ever. (Peterhansel has won 9 titles, but only 6 in the bike class).
But not at every stage did it look like it was going to be a Kamaz white-and-blue wash, at the half way point the bright yellow Tatra team of Ales Loprais were in 2nd after two straight stage wins, just 16 minutes behind Kabirov and the same ahead of Chagin. It's hard to call an 8-ton behemoth a minnow, but the Kamaz Master Team is just about a works effort, with support from the very highest circles of the Russian state administration... while Loprais has just eight people working on his truck. His challenge didn't last to the end though and a faulty turbo charger put pay to their hopes of an amazing podium. With no turbo boost it was almost impossible to crest the dunes and with the lacking torque momentum is what they used... until the suspension started to give way after too many heavy landings. They managed to get back to camp but missed so many waypoints on the way that the organizers had no choice but to exclude them. From that point Kamaz victory was assured.
Going almost unnoticed behind his famous team mates was the young Eduard Nikolaev in the third Kamaz but the lack of press coverage belies that fact that this 26 year old finished in an unchallenged 3rd place on his first ever Dakar behind the wheel. In his first major event, last year's Silk Way Rally he beat both Chagin and Kabirov on merit and as Chagin himself said, the next generation of Kamaz drivers is starting to come to the fore, Nikolaev at the head of the queue.
Since the mid 2000s there have been only two winners in the Dakar bike category, names everyone who's ever watched the video snippets will be familiar with, France's Cyril Despres and Spain's Marc Coma. They are KTM riders and for 11 and a half months give the perception that they are friends. For the first two weeks of the year though there is no rivalry more intense in the whole field, something akin perhaps to Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost back in the day, two men at the absolute top of their game contending for one of motorsport's ultimate crowns.
Some may say that riding a bike is intrinsically more dangerous than driving a car and whereas the seat belt will catch you in the drivers seat, if you come out of the saddle it is only the tarmac that awaits you... but racing off-road is something else entirely... At speed, every stone, rut and change of surface needs a correction from the rider to keep balance... almost every metre of every stage. Then consider that fact that riders have a logbook to read and a trip counter to correlate it to while they're riding flat out and maybe you start to get an idea of just how hard the life of a Dakar biker is. Half the number of wheels while simultaneously doing the job of a driver AND co-pilot!
Coma and Despres have dominated the Dakar for years and after the first couple of stages no one else looked remotely likely to change this in 2011. If there was never any doubt about one of the KTM riders being the champion, for almost a week which one of them it would be was a much harder question to answer. By the end of the 4th stage and 1220km of timed sections they shared two wins apiece and were separated by a mere two seconds. But it was last year's champion Despres who was first to falter, a 10 minute penalty for jumping the start gifted the advantage firmly into Coma's hands and from then on all he had to do was ride well-paced and tactical stages sacrificing a couple of minutes here and there to his rival while keeping out of trouble and to Despres' distaste this is exactly what he did... until stage 10 where the result was pretty fixed. Despres made two critical navigational errors and suddenly the gap was up to an almost insurmountable 18'10. Coma was home free and duly kept the symmetry on the champions table, alternating victory with Despres since 2005, now with three each.
Behind the duel between the best it was a battle of the best of the rest. Despres' team mate Ruben Faria, Chilean Francisco "Chaleco" Lopez, American Jonah Street and Protugal's Helder Rodrigues all showed flashes of brilliance but none could muster a sustained attack to worry the leaders. Accidents, mechanical problems and plentiful navigational errors meant that it was local hero 'Chaleco' Lopez holding the last podium place going into the short 180km final section to the flag. But instead of 3rd place his prize turned out to be the most tragic twist of the event. Just 22km from the end a shock absorber broke and despite his best efforts and those of his team mate the 40 minutes he had in hand hemorrhaged away and he was towed across the line slumped across the handlebars, heart broken with 4th.
The quad category leaderboard was set much earlier than in any other class. Last year's local heroes, the Patronelli brothers, who famously finished 1 - 2 in 2010 led the field off, but younger brother Marcos was riding his Yamaha on borrowed time as he'd broken his arm a month before the event in a testing accident. This year's event was just a case of how far he could get until his body had had enough. Remarkably though he clocked 6th fastest time on the second stage before finally pulling out, head held deservedly high on the 4th placing he had, and letting older brother Alejandro take over the family fight.
It was a podium of Argentineans leading the way with Tomas Maffei taking a turn in front ahead of Patronelli and Sebastian Halpern with just minutes between them, but once they came into the vast dunes of Chile Patronelli, thanks to some blistering times combined with problems for his challengers, quickly shot ahead with an hour's lead allowing the luxury of being able to ride conservatively... and he needed to as he'd broken his hand on the 4th stage. With true Dakar grit and determination he tackled each stage intelligently riding only as fast as he needed to, letting the fastest times go to those who were hours behind him.
But the podium was settled only on the very last stage. Christophe Declerck, the French Polaris rider only had a tiny 3 minute lead over Polish Yamaha rider Lukasz Laskawiec and both of them raced the final 180km as never before. But after 5000 competitive kilometres it was Laskawiec who took the final step of the podium just 52 seconds ahead. Nothing is ever written in stone in the Dakar... it's only written in sand.