The world's most grueling rally event is underway again, as more than 330 cars, trucks, bikes and quads set off for at least 3,100 miles (5,000 km) of high speed machine torture in the 41st Dakar Rally. This year's course takes competitors on a lap of southern Peru, starting and finishing in Lima.
It's going to be a sandy one; the Peruvian desert around the Ica region is as tough as the Sahara itself, and dune specialists will find themselves right in their element. There will be little this year in the way of mountains, mud and dirt tracks – indeed, some are concerned the lack of diverse driving environments might lessen the spectacle. But lots of sand often means lots of crashes, so competitors will need to stay on point at all times, and no lead will be safe.
On the other hand, crashing out early won't be quite the abrupt end to proceedings it has been in prior years. This year, for the first time, if you drop out of the race in the first half of the route, you'll have a chance to jump back in and race the second half of the program – albeit under a different classification. It won't be the same as gritting the whole thing out, but many teams will find it a better option than heading home, tail between legs.
In the car division, the 2WD turbo diesel Peugeots that have won the last three years won't be competing this year, having quit because Peugeot felt it was being unduly penalized for its success by Dakar rule changes. So all eyes are on Toyota's Nasser Al-Attiyah and Matthieu Baumel, who have proven themselves in the dunes and taken runner-up spots in 2016 and 2018. They're experienced campaigners, former champions with Mini, and this race feels like theirs to lose.
For the big truck category – and if you've never watched Dakar before, you owe it to yourself to see these giant things crashing through the sand dunes – survival was the name of the game in 2018. Russia's Kamaz teams have endured and won the last two years, and the team has a new Kamaz-43509 truck for 2019, with manual and auto variants distributed between its four teams and three-time champion Eduard Nikolaev looking to expand his impressive resume. But Federico Villagra (who was challenging for the lead when his Iveco came to a complete stop on the second-last special stage last year) is back looking for revenge, and two-time champion Gerard De Rooy is back as well, so the Ivecos could well have their year in 2019.
As for motorcycles, there's been a marked uptick in rally-style, mid-displacement adventure machines in the last year or two, notably from Honda, Yamaha and KTM, all of which will be keen to sell on Monday with a bit of Sunday success in Peru. But for the last 17 years, the Dakar has been owned lock, stock and barrel by KTM. The past three winners are lining up again on orange bikes: Toby Price, Sam Sunderland and Matthias Walkner. But HRC has been snapping at KTM's heels the last couple of years, Price is lining up just weeks after breaking his scaphoid, and taking this event out of Austria's grasp would mean everything to the Japanese.
Side-by-sides get their own class for 2019, and the two latest champions from the quad bike category (Ignacio Casale and Sergey Karyakin) are coming across to challenge Can-Am's current class champion, Reinaldo Varela, and continue their own rivalry in somewhat safer vehicles. No less than 33 SxS teams will take a stab at the race this year, a healthy and growing field.
Which leaves the quads, now in their 10th year as a separate class. With both former champions gone, the quad class is guaranteed a new winner in 2019, and most of the serious contenders – Nicolas Cavigliasson, Jeremias Gonzalez, Axel Dutrie, Nelson Sanabria – are riding Yamahas. In the nine previous years of racing, Yamaha has never lost, and this doesn't look like the year it'll start.
Source: Dakar 2019
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