Ranging from battled-hardened veterans to wide-eyed rookies, the Desert Wings are aiming for the top prize in all four categories of the 2016 Dakar Rally.
It takes an entire year to prepare for the toughest race on the planet – and finally the wait is over as the bravest petrolheads in the world rev up their engines on the start line of the 2016 Dakar Rally. Among the 556 competitors signed up for the gruelling two-week challenge in South America are the Red Bull Desert Wings squad. Ranging from battled-hardened veterans to wide-eyed rookies, the Desert Wings are aiming for the top prize in all four categories at this year’s desert classic.
As the various crews arrived in Buenos Aires during the final days of 2015 to complete the necessary pre-race scrutineering checks, the most relaxed customer was undoubtedly Nasser Al-Attiyah. The reigning champion returns with co-driver Mathieu Baumel and the MINI that has accompanied them on a serial winning streak, which started in South America 12 months ago.
Peugeot, MINI and Toyota challengers
Also racing MINIs this time round will be Red Bull-backed Polish drivers Adam Malysz and Kuba Przygonski, accompanied by Xavier Panseri and Andrei Rudnitski respectively. Adam, a multiple Ski Jump World Cup winner, is back for his fifth Dakar while Kuba is on four wheels for the first time after successfully completing the bike race five times, including a pair of top-10 finishes.
Team Peugeot-Total have a new car and some fresh faces as they return to the race following a mixed bag of results last time out. Sébastien Loeb has joined the ranks of motorsport royalty thanks to his nine consecutive World Rally Championship titles, and there’s plenty of intrigue surrounding his first attempt at the Dakar. Sébastien takes the wheel of his Peugeot 2008DKR16 alongside long-standing co-driver Daniel Elena. Elsewhere in Peugeot’s stellar line-up are three crews with 17 Dakar victories between them: Stéphane Peterhansel/Jean-Paul Cottret, Carlos Sainz/Lucas Cruz and Cyril Despres/David Castera.
Looking to nudge past both the Peugeot and MINI challengers will be the Toyota Hiluxes of Giniel de Villiers and Marek Dabrowski. Giniel, along with co-driver Dirk Von Zitzewitz, is a former Dakar champion and has also claimed three second-place finishes in the past five editions of the race. Marek and his right-hand man Jacek Czachor were the best-placed rookies with seventh place at the 2014 Dakar, and once again have their sights on the top 10.
With Cyril Despres now otherwise engaged and Marc Coma taking up the role of the Dakar’s Sporting Director, there will be a new face winning this year’s bike category for the first time in over a decade. The last 14 winners in this category have ridden for KTM and despite Coma’s retirement the Austrian squad still boasts the strongest line-up at the event. The new-look Red Bull KTM Factory Team is comprised of its captain Jordi Viladoms (second in 2014), Toby Price (third in 2015), Matthias Walkner (Reigning FIM Cross-Country Rallies World Champion) and Antoine Méo (multiple World Enduro Champion). Iván Cervantes is also aboard KTM machinery, as he makes his Dakar debut alongside Antoine.
Leading the charge to stop KTM taking a 15th consecutive win will be Honda’s Joan ‘Bang Bang’ Barreda. Joan’s speed is undeniable, with 13 stage wins achieved in the previous four editions of the Dakar. If the Spanish rider can avoid navigational and mechanical mishaps, he is a clear contender for the top prize. Yamaha’s Hélder Rodrigues has proven a consistent performer by reaching the finish line of the last nine editions of the Dakar with eight top-10 finishes, including two podiums. With the bike race looking wide open this could well turn out to be a big year for the Portuguese rider.
Building a Dakar dynasty similar to KTM’s string of success is Team Kamaz Master, as its trucks prepare to roll out of Buenos Aires. A dominant display from the Russians 12 months ago meant that they secured a fine one-two-three finish, and everything is in place to attempt a repeat performance this time round. Team captain Vladimir Chagin, himself a record-holding seven-time single-category champion, will send four crews into battle, led by drivers Ayrat Mardeev (2015 winner), Andrey Karginov (2014 winner), Eduard Nikolaev (2013 winner) and Dmitry Sotnikov.
The quad race
The scenario most likely to give the local fans a victory to toast is in the quad race, with two-time winner Marcos Patronelli back in the fray. The Argentine will have plenty of support along the route as tries to fend off a combative crop of up-and-coming quad bikers, including Qatar’s Mohamed Abu Issa.
Nasser Al-Attiyah #300: “I’m very proud and happy to be back here. I think that every time I come back, my motivation to win gets stronger! There are some improvements to the car, but for our strategy I think we can keep the same as last year.”
Adam Malysz #325: “I'm curious to see how we can deal with the challenges that the organisers have prepared for us. It's an unpredictable event in which basically every step is a struggle for survival.”
Kuba Przygonski #327: “Everything is new for me but I learned a lot during the year. The main difficulty for me is to understand the terrain from a different side. On a bike, you can't take as many risks so in a car I still tend to slow down when I could actually push.”
Sébastien Loeb #314: “It’s really interesting and motivating to be a beginner again, so I’m just trying to stay calm and learn as much as possible. I’m sure we’re going to have some good adventures, which is what we came here for.”
Stéphane Peterhansel #302: “We had a good shakedown, which was really just to check the systems of the car and get back into the rhythm of driving. Now we are ready to go. What’s for sure is that the car is a big improvement over the car we had last year.”
Carlos Sainz #303: “So far, so good. We have the normal scrutineering, which happened with no problems. There’s a long way to go, and I’m experienced enough to know that there’s no point in making any sort of predictions or conclusions now…”
Cyril Despres #321: “I’ve only driven this brand new car for 15 kilometres at our shakedown, so I’m really looking forward to driving it in competition. You can jump and drift and slide the car like a bike, but it’s got four wheels and a co-driver too!”
Giniel de Villiers #301: “It looks like another tough route, with a five-day period where we will be at an average altitude somewhere between 3,500 and 4,000 metres above sea level. I’ve prepared for this by sleeping in an altitude tent so we’ll see if that helps.”
Marek Dabrowski #322: “On the Dakar, we'll need to find the good tempo and avoid mistakes. I'm expecting difficult navigation and tough terrain. We were seventh in 2014 and it would be nice to finish the Dakar around that position.”
Jordi Viladoms #11: “I had the pleasure of riding alongside Marc (Coma) for many years and it was a great learning experience. Now I have the chance to share this knowledge with the younger members of the team while also fighting for a good result.”
Toby Price #3: “The Dakar is still very new for me and there’s still a lot to learn about this race. The course looks like it will be a good challenge and I’m excited to get out there and get started. I won’t be taking many risks on tomorrow’s prologue stage, anywhere inside the top 15 will be a good result for me on the opening day.”
Matthias Walkner #14: “The first goal for me is to finish the race because I was unable to do that last time. After that my focus is on making the least amount of mistakes I possible can. To finish inside the top five would be great result for me.
Antoine Méo #49: “It’s like a fresh start, but I like to push myself. Most of all, I’m here to learn and the Dakar has always been a big personal goal of mine. One day I’d like to do it in a car as well.”
Iván Cervantes #52: “This is my very first Dakar, so I’m feeling a little nervous but I’m also looking forward to it. My team-mates have been very supportive and offered a lot of useful advice. Luckily I’m not bothered by the heat: it's the cold that I hate most!”
Joan Barreda #6: “The marathon stage will also be very strict because we won't be allowed to touch the bikes after the start and not until the start of the following day's stage. The whole race will be complicated and interesting.”
Hélder Rodrigues #7: “It’s good to be back with Yamaha, preparing for a new challenge with new objectives. The team has achieved great results at the Dakar and other rallies so I’m motivated to maintain these traditions. I’m optimistic of a good result.”
Ayrat Mardeev #500: “Victory brings a serenity that makes it easier to concentrate. The preparation for this Dakar began just after the last one. We analysed our trucks, recognised the mistakes we made and began preparing the next rally. We will try to win again.”
Andrey Karginov #504: “Our target is the same as it was the previous years. It is to be on the podium and as high as possible, but never at the expense of our common victory. If our crew manages to win it is a double satisfaction. All four trucks are prepared identically.”
Eduard Nikolaev #502: “I was surprised to win six stages last year. It was not our objective. In 2013, we won the Dakar without winning a single stage. We have developed the truck, but there are no major evolutions. Just little tweaks that I hope will pay off during the rally.”
Marcos Patronelli #252: “For the past two months I have stepped up my physical conditioning with aerobic exercises, a lot of bicycle training and hours and hours on the quad to be as best prepared as possible.”
Mohamed Abu Issa #255: “I'm going to the Dakar to win it, but I wouldn't be unhappy with a podium spot. Then again, I can't let the competition get to me and you can't go faster than you can go. I need to first focus on myself and then tactics will come later in the race.”
Red Bull Desert Wings