It's January 3 and that can only mean two things. 1: millions of people have already broken their New Year's resolutions, and 2: the Dakar Rally is about to begin. For those unfamiliar with the event, the Dakar Rally is the single largest and longest motor race in the world. This year's edition will have over 430 vehicles from 53 nations competing over 13 days and 3,400 race miles through three countries (Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile). With many new cars, new drivers, and new teams coming to South America this year is shaping up to be one of the most interesting events in recent memory.
As I have the last two years I will be doing the "Daily Dakar," a review of the day's action in bikes, cars, and trucks. This year, however, due to increased work hours, the Daily Dakar will post at 10:00 AM the following day instead of in the waning hours on the day of the stage. Here, to start us off, is a preview of this year's stories.
The rally officially begins with the ceremonial start (and Robby Gordon jumping the ceremonial podium) in Rosario, Argentina on January 4, but the first stage of the race will be on January 5. From there the teams will race 13 stages over 14 days before finally finishing in Valparíso, Chile on Jauary 18. About half the field will fail to even see the finish line and, if history is any indicator, less than a half dozen competitors will finish within an hour of each class winner. Each day is made up of one stage (sometimes broken into two segments with a transit in the middle, but it still counts as a single stage because Dakar), a morning transit to the stage and an evening transit from the stage. Stage length runs from 97 miles to 410 miles (157-657 km), with a total day's driving distance ranging from 280 miles to 567 miles (451-911 km). No outside assistance is allowed in the stages, meaning if something breaks or a vehicle gets stuck it's up to the driver and co-driver to fix it. Other competing drivers and co-drivers are allowed to help as well if they're feeling generous, but service crews aren't allowed on the stages (this is what gave birth to the T4 truck class). This also means there is no refueling allowed on stage, each car must carry the day's required amount of fuel from the start.
The (Car) Competitors - Factory
If you want to win Dakar you need two things, the first of which is ensuring you're a part of whatever happens to be the biggest factory effort of the given year. Not only have factory teams won 24 of the last 26 rallies (the two exceptions still being a partial factory effort), but teams that win tend to create a dynasty. Only once in those 26 years has a team failed to win a second successive Dakar after their first win (Citroen in 1991, they came back to win '94-'96). Ever since Peugeot began the dynasty trend in 1987 by winning four straight Dakars only five manufacturers have tasted victory, with Mitsubishi being the biggest trophy hog of the bunch at eleven in sixteen years.
Right now Mini X-Raid is the daddy in Dakar. Strategically beginning their all-in commitment the same year Volkswagen, the previous overlord, announced they were leaving Dakar, Mini is now 2-for-2, and with an absurd eleven vehicles entered in this year's rally it's fairly clear they intend to clinch the threepeat. I'm not going to saying Mini is the only factory team competing this year, but basically they're the only factory team competing for victory this year. Imperial Toyota, Toyota's South African arm, is bringing two cars and, while they've never shown the same speed as the Minis, they'll be attempting to get on the podium for the third straight year via through "slow"-and-steady consistency . The third factory effort this year comes from official Dakar newcomer Ford, who has decided to enter the fray with a pair of Ford Rangers. The team's goal is to finish in the top 5.
2WD vs 4WD (The Robby Gordon effect)
The second thing you need to win in Dakar, at least according to history, is four wheel drive. With the exception of Jean-Louis Schlesser in 1999 and 2000 (the only "privateer" to get in the way of the factory teams) every vehicle to win Dakar since 1985 has been packing four wheel drive. Despite this, and despite having personally being a part of the last two wins, Mini team boss Sven Quandt has called for the ASO to make rule changes, claiming that the current rules unfairly favor the 2WD cars. Wait, what?
This sounds like madness, but there is, in fact, a difference in the rules between AWD and RWD cars. AWD cars are limited to about ten inches of travel and a slightly less powerful motor, all part of an effort to balance the two drive types and make it fair for the 2WD cars. AWD has the clear advantage in soft sand and slippery conditions (also twisty, smooth roads, thanks to the firmer suspension), while RWD, with it's extra suspension travel, can run through the rougher terrain faster and ultimately has a higher top speed. This is nothing new and has (almost) never been an issue for the AWD cars in the past, so why is Mini concerned about it now? Two words: Robby Gordon.
Robby, a Baja racer used to rear wheel drive, big travel, and big power, decided to campaign his own Dakar team in 2006. To build his Dakar rig he took a Baja Class 1 car and turned it into a full bodied buggy loosely resembling a Hummer. While he was able to finish third overall in 2009 he was never seen as much of a threat to the establishment, scoring just two stage wins in his first five years.
2012 marked a turning point, both for Gordon and for the entire perception of 2WD vehicles in Dakar. Gordon rented out his team's second Hummer to former Dakar champion Nasser al-Attiyah and the two Hummers became the proverbial fly in the ointment for Mini, winning six of the fourteen stages and getting on the podium on an additional four stages (by comparison eventual winner Peterhansel won three stages and podiumed nine). Both Hummers were sidelined on the second week of competition, al-Attiyah with a belt issue and Gordon with the 1-2 punch of a CV failure and a controversial disqualification, but their speed proved to be the shot heard around the rally raid world. A privateer with a cheaper, "American-style" 2WD long-travel buggy could threaten the factory teams. The next year al-Attiyah returned to Dakar with Carlos Sainz and two buggies of their own, built by legendary American off road fabricator Damen Jefferies. While both buggies ultimately broke they didn't go without making their mark, winning four of the first six stages. With Robby winning an additional two stages and the SMG buggy (which starts life as an American-built Jimco before being shipped to SMG in France for finishing) of Guerlain Chicherit winning a stage as well it was the best showing in recent history for RWD cars. Now, with four major 2WD teams coming to bring the fight to Mini, this could be the turning point in the balance of power
The Key Players
These are the teams that I'll be highlighting throughout Dakar. I've got a bit of a boner for Baja-type race vehicles (I own a desert truck myself), so admittedly there will likely be an unfair amount of 2WD coverage.
THE factory team this year, back again with their strategy of ensuring a win through superior numbers. How a team can bring 11 cars and the biggest budget to a race then complain to the sanctioning body about their odds of winning I'll never know. While Peterhansel is the team's #1 driver odds are the first week will be filled with in-house jockeying for the spot as "top Mini," particularly between Peterhansel, al-Attiyah, and Roma.
3.0L diesel I6, 307 hp/516 ft/lbs torque
Top speed: 110 mph (176 kph)
Length/width/height/wheelbase: 171/79/78/115 inches (4333/1998/1966/2900 mm)
Weight: 4189 lbs (1900 kg)
Fuel capacity: 95 gallons
Drivers (country, car number): Stephane Peterhansel (FRA, 300), Nasser al-Attiyah (QAT, 301), Nani Roma (ESP, 304), Orlando Terranova (ARG, 307), Krzysztof Holowczyc (POL, 3o9), Vladimir Vasilyev (RUS, 314), Boris Garafulic (CHL, 317), Yong Zhou (CHN, 319), Federico Villagra (ARG, 330), Martin Kaczmarski (POL, 332), Stephan Schott (DEU, 337)
The dark horse of the factory teams. Ginel De Villiers is himself a Dakar champion, winning in 2009 with Volkswagen. While he can't match the pace of the Minis or the top buggies he's arguably the most consistent driver in Dakar and is a master of putting himself in position to pounce when a faster driver falters. The second vehicle, driven by fellow South African Leeroy Poulter is here effectively to work as a close support vehicle to De Villiers, but if Ginel is forced to retire Leeroy may fight for a top 10 spot.
5.0L V8 (factory Lexus 2UR-GSE engine), 416 hp/370 ft/lbs torque
Drivers (country, car number): Ginel De Villiers (ZAF, 302), Leeroy Poulter (ZAF, 323)
It's a Ford Ranger with a Mustang V8. WHY CAN'T WE HAVE THIS?!?! Primary driver Lucio Alvarez has already stated his goal is to simply score a top 5, as this is a development year for the new team and Mini is, well, Mini. Much like the Toyota team the second Ford of Christiaan Visser is set up to be a support vehicle and with all the spares and supplies he'll be carrying he will be too heavy and too slow to set competitive times.
5.0L Mustang V8, 350 hp/413 ft/lbs torque
Top speed: 105 mph
Drivers (country, car number): Lucio Alvarez (ARG, 308), Christiaan Visser (ZAF, 329)
When I first drafted this post (about a week ago) I wrote that typical loudmouth Robby had been unbelievably quiet and as a result we knew virtually zero about Gordon's new car aside from it's color, the engine being a V8, and me wanting to have sex with the sound of that glorious engine. This week the curtain of mystery finally collapsed with more and more details steadily trickling in, with most of the big questions only being answered within the last 24 hours. We know the new car, based on his Stadium Super Trucks, is being called the HST (which has been theorized to stand for "Hummer Super Truck"). Based on the string of teaser photos slowly leaked by Gordon fansite Planet Robby the new car seems to have a deployable spoiler air brake, a la Bugatti Veyron, though this could be a Robby misdirect (wouldn't be the first time). We do know the body is almost entirely carbon fiber and Robby apparently raided the Ford Raptor parts bin for the taillights. Thanks to this photo taken yesterday in Argentina and posted on the Planet Robby forum by user "German Ali" we can now confirm it's front engine with a live rear axle (the old Hummer was rear-mid with IRS). Last night Toyo Tires joined in the informal multi-source reveal party by posting the first brief glimpse of the car in action. The last morsel of information came from apparent insider Bill C. on ADVrider.com. According to Bill the HST wheelbase is seven inches longer than the SST (making it 111 inches), the engine is a GM crate motor, the suspension provides 20 inches of travel, and the HST is 20% lighter than the old Hummer with a "significantly lower" center of gravity. Bill also says the HST test mule hit 160 mph without the mandatory Dakar engine restrictor and 130 with said restrictor. Actual power and weight figures are still unknown, but if Robby avoids playing turtle this year and the HST isn't struck with a case of the "new car blues," Sven Quant will likely be feeling vindicated by the end of the rally.
GM V8, powered by unicorn blood, 300-450 hp (estimated guess)
Wheelbase: 111 inches (rumor)
Top speed: 130 mph (speculation)
Weight: 1,000 lbs (hearsay)
Fuel capacity: 7 unicorns, plus a turbo-powered industrial juicer
Drivers (country, car number): Robby Gordon (USA, 305)