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Guenter Reinhold

2012 Dakar Rally Preview

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Saturday, December 31, 2011

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Dakar Staging area - Mar Del Plata
443 vehicles will take part in the 2012 Dakar, which will start from Mar del Plata and head towards Lima, where the pilots will arrive following an 8,300-kilometre trek through Argentinean, Chilean and Peruvian territory. The battle for the four titles at stake is about to begin.

At this time of the year, beaches in "La Feliz" are packed with holidaymakers every day. But today, all eyes are focused on Plaza Colon, a bit further from the sea, where a podium has been set up for the presentation of the teams to the public before the race. This ceremony is usually held before tens of thousands of spectators, who have 443 vehicles to marvel at and applaud this year. Despite the festive ambiance in the city, the atmosphere must feel quite chilly for a handful of competitors who will have to forget their ambitions. Indeed, seven quads failed the technical checks, since they were too different from the production models they were supposed to represent. "Prototypes" are not allowed in this category! Although they will be allowed to participate, Josef Machacek (5-time winner), Lukasz Laskawiec (3rd in 2011), Christophe Declerck (4th in 2011), Rafal Sonik, Antoine Leconte, Norberto Cangani and Maciej Albinowski are no longer eligible for the general classification. The path to victory seems clear for the Patronelli brothers, or at least for a battle among South Americans.

Although their fate is yet to be decided, four motorcycle riders are also in a situation which will probably make them smile in a few days' time, but which is giving them quite a few headaches at the moment. Iain Stevenson, Neil Scott-Thomas, Darryl Curtis and Greg Raaf's motorcycles were delayed on their trip from the United States. As of December 31, the ship carrying them has only reached Delta Dock, roughly 500 km from Mar del Plata. In order to give them a chance to win this first time trial, the organizers decided to make headway with the administrative part of their scrutineering and call for help from the Argentinean authorities to speed up customs procedures, but seeing these four riders at the starting line is not a done deal. The deputy manager of the rally, David Castera, has asked them to be ready for tomorrow morning at 5 am if they are able to bring in their motorcycles for a simplified technical scrutineering process.

The four victims of sea transport misadventures would be happy just to start the race, but other pilots are already thinking about the top step of the podium in Lima. Among them are Cyril Despres and Marc Coma, who walked around the aisles of the scrutineering area clad in identical orange shirts. Their relaxed mood and companionship contrasts with the tense relationship they have had over the last few years, and the defending champion shows he wants to keep things that way: "Things have calmed down a lot between us, I think it is much better to start the race in this state of mind." In the car category, Nasser Al-Attiyah has also teamed up with a former rival, Robby Gordon, who has put him at the wheel of a Hummer H3 decorated with the colors of Qatar. He will probably have to beat a former teammate if he wants to mount a successful title defense: at the wheel of his Mini, it looks like Stéphane Peterhansel has got what he needs to finally take his 10th win after years of trying.

During the second day of scrutineering, pride of place was given to the trucks, with the appearance of the Kamaz and De Rooy teams, predicted to be rivaling each other for triumph in Lima. In the car and bike categories, the main outsiders on the rally laid out their strategies.

“It's impressive, it almost looks like a floating bivouac,” joked Etienne Lavigne as he strolled down the waterfront of ‘Mardel', as the Argentines call it. Between the bathing huts and the naval base, which is hosting the administrative and technical scrutineering, a jetty plays host to a vast waiting area, where the competitors have set up to carry out final adjustments to their vehicles. Early morning visitors could have come across the trucks of the De Rooy, Kamaz, Tatra and Man teams, ready to get stuck into a fierce battle for victory. Soon after, however, they headed to the scrutineering stands, to submit themselves to the compulsory tests. Conversations with drivers and observers pointed to the fact that this year, the truck category is more open than ever. The retirements of Chagin and Kabirov (with 9 titles between them) are a significant reason, even if their replacements Nikolaev and the young Mardeev are very promising. The competition is both technically adept and confident, as shown by Micki Biasion, the third element of a dream team led by Gerard De Rooy and Hans Stacey: “To beat the Kamaz team, you need a team made up of several very competitive trucks,” says the two times world rally champion. “This year, De Rooy has managed to do just that, so there is a genuine opportunity of victory”. Aware of how true this analysis is, Ales Loprais is displaying more modest ambitions, but it should not be forgotten that he also managed to beat the Kamaz trucks on the Silk Way Rally: “Our team is not at their level, so I'm going to settle for picking up stage wins”.

The demonstrations of power were therefore to be found in the truck category for the second day of scrutineering, but some party spoilers in the car category were especially keenly expected, starting with Christian Lavieille, waxing lyrical on the qualities of the Proto 011 Dessoude that he aims to place in the Top 5, as he vaguely hinted: “There's no question of me putting any pressure on myself, even if many drivers have had a keen eye on the new car”. As regards the bikes, Despres and Coma will be centre stage tomorrow, but their main challengers had plenty to say today. Their comments mainly concerned the penalties that will be handed out for each engine change. Frans Verhoeven is placing his trust in the brand new Sherco to grab a Top 5 finish and even set out a very precise road map to achieving this goal: “We are going to use two engines, because I believe that nobody amongst the favorites will manage to finish the rally on one single engine. I'm planning to change it after 8 days of the race”. The strategy is similar for Jakub Przygonsky, 2nd in the world championships this season: “I think that everyone will replace the 1st engine and nobody will replace the 2nd. So it doesn't change a thing”. As for David Casteu, leading rider in the Yamaha France team, his remarks seemed to be a mix of opinion and bluff: “We will very probably change it once, but the engine is capable of holding out for the whole Dakar. It managed to clock up 12,000 km during the tests!” At the end of the day, one of the major players in the discipline however seemed to be totally disinterested by this year's hot topic. The crash which left Francisco “Chaleco” Lopez with multiple fractures last spring has encouraged him to go back to basics: “I don't have any strategy at all and no ambitions. I'm just happy to be here, after what happened to me. I'd like to see Lima”. Just like all the riders, drivers and co-pilots who will be taking starter's orders on the rally on Sunday morning.

The relaxed atmosphere adopted by holiday-makers in "La Feliz" did not totally rub off on the riders and drivers of the Dakar 2012, which will start on 1st January. In Mar del Plata, the competitors summoned for the first day of scrutineering proved to be focused on their goal: Lima, which the best amongst them will reach on 15th January.

It is not a stage, but a compulsory step on the road towards the race. Among the riders and drivers on the Dakar, the tension was genuinely palpable in the aisles through the various phases of technical and administrative scrutineering. For one or two days, most of them have enjoyed the pleasures of Mar del Plata, the seaside resort popular with holiday-makers from Buenos Aires. However, after tasting a tenderloin or top loin steak according to taste, and a morning jog on the beach for many of them, it was high time to get to the heart of the matter. From dawn onwards, the naval base opened its gates to the riders and drivers. As chance would have it, the first to appear was the youngest competitor on the rally: Argentinean Lucas Bonetto, from Ushuaia, who has just turned 20 years of age. With a promising future ahead of him, the recently-crowned Argentinean quad champion has a ready source of inspiration in the Patronelli brothers, with whom he may have crossed paths later in the day. Alejandro, the title holder, and Marcos, the winner in 2010, have become the leading lights in motorsport in their home country. Their performances along the rally tracks have won them the affection of an entire population, along with the respect of all the riders in the category. The state of play in this category is likely to change with a reduction in engine power included in the rules this year: “I prefer the restrictions”, says Alejandro nonetheless. “Handling a 900cc is harder, more tiring. In any case, this race is not a conventional race. First and foremost it's a major journey and a massive challenge”.

Aside from the quads, the favorites for the various titles up for grabs are expected a little later in the schedule. However, the first day still enabled the spectators and journalists present to gauge the ambition of some of the outsiders in the bike category, starting with Jordi Viladoms, who has recently left Yamaha for a new Italian team, Bordone-Ferrari. The apparent youth of his team has not made the slightest change to the objectives of the Spaniard, who for a long time was Marc Coma's water carrier. “There are five of us in with a chance of winning. I think the creation of penalties for changing engines will be a decisive factor. Perhaps some riders will be able to complete the rally with a single engine, but among the favorites, few of them will”. Indeed, the threat of a 15-minute addition in the standings (45' for the 2nd engine change) was at the heart of discussions. Pal-Anders Ullevalseter, 2nd in 2010 behind Cyril Despres, was more reserved about the capacity to complete 8,300 km without blowing an engine, but does not have any worries about the fight for the podium: “In my opinion, nobody will be able to finish with a single engine, but even with 45 minutes of penalties, it's still possible to finish near the top of the rankings. In any case, I can't wait to cross the mountains and get stuck into a good dose of desert”.

As the condor (rather than the crow) flies, almost 5,000 kilometers separate Mar del Plata from Lima. In 2012, the Dakar will be staging a pan-American adventure of more than 9,000 kilometers in total. Unlike previous year’s loops, the route will transport the rally from the shores of the Atlantic Ocean to those of the Pacific, enabling its competitors to discover new lands and another aspect of South America. The scale of this challenge has also led to a change in the race’s format, which will include 14 days of racing in 2012. Constantly guided by the Andes Mountain range, the drivers and riders will be crossing the Atacama, and will experience in particular the diversity of the dunes as they head into Peru.

Dakar 2012 - The route

DATE START FINISH
01/01/2012 Mar Del Plata Santa Rosa de la Pampa
02/01/2012 Santa Rosa de la Pampa San Rafael
03/01/2012 San Rafael San Juan
04/01/2012 San Juan Chilecito
05/01/2012 Chilecito Fiambala
06/01/2012 Fiambala Copiapo
07/01/2012 Copiapo Copiapo
08/01/2012 Rest day
09/01/2012 Copiapo Antofagasta
10/01/2012 Antofagasta Iquique
11/01/2012 Iquique Arica
12/01/2012 Arica Arequipa
13/01/2012 Arequipa Nasca
14/01/2012 Nasca Pisco
15/01/2012 Pisco Lima

The Norwegian's appetite for sand is shared by all of the competitors, whether beginners, unknowns or favorites. Tomorrow, the pretenders for the title in the truck category will be present: the Kamaz trucks of Nikolaev and Mardeev junior, the Ivecos of De Rooy, Stacey and Biasion and the Tatra of Ales Loprais. In the car category, the stands will be welcoming Christian Lavieille (Dessoude) or Bernhard Ten Brinke (Riwald). On two wheels, it will be the turn of Francisco Lopez (Aprilia), Paulo Gonçalves (Husqvarna) or Quinn Cody (Honda) to undergo the scrutineering circuit.

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