This years running of the annual Dakar Rally in South America began on January 4th and ended on January 17th. The competitors in the motorbike, quad, car, and truck classes made their way from Buenos Aires in Argentina, heading into the dunes of Chile, going through Bolivia before heading back into Chile and Argentina where the rally ended back at Buenos Aires. Overall the competitors who actually finished the rally covered over 9,000km (5,600 miles). While the Dakar Rally and the related sport of rally raid is still a competition, it is also an adventure as the competitors have to rely on their resources while going fast in some of the roughest and most remote terrain in the world. The riders and drivers traversed over mud, gravel, rocks, deserts, and even a salt flat in what was one of the hardest Dakar Rally's on record.
What Is the Dakar Rally?
The Dakar Rally is part of a group of sport called a rally raid; specifically a cross country rally. While the term rally might indicate it's similarities to the rallies that make up the World Rally Championship, and it is true they do share some similarities, rally raids also have plenty of similarities to various off road and desert racing events like the famed Baja 1000. In any case results are determined by time; as opposed to physical finishing positions like in NASCAR or Formula 1. Over the course of a rally raid event, competitors compete for individual stage wins, and their times from each stage are added together to form the overall results.
The types of vehicles allowed to participate are quite open compared to other motorsports. Bikes, Quads/ATVs, Cars (including prototypes, production-based vehicles, buggies, cars, pickups, etc.), and big trucks that are related to semi trucks all participate in various cross country events; though some rules may vary from event to event. For example, while the general rules are similar, some slight difference may exist between the Dakar Rally and various FIA and FIM-sanctioned events; such as the shorter cross country bajas.
In short, the Dakar Rally is the biggest rally raid of them all; essentially the Super Bowl or World Cup of the sport. It gets the most drivers/riders, the most media attention, the most sponsorship, and the most hype.
Those who know their geography might note a discrepancy. While the event is called the Dakar Rally, it doesn't actually have much to do with the city of Dakar; located in Senegal, Africa. Before it was moved to South America in 2009, the traditional home of the rally was actually in Africa. It would normally start in Europe (Paris, Lisbon, etc.) and on most occasions end in the city of Dakar. Thank to terrorist threats in 2008, the rally was cancelled and subsequently moved. Of course not everyone agreed with this, and as such a separate rally called the Africa Eco Race now currently races where the Dakar once did.
The 2015 Edition
The motorbike category was headed by the always strong KTM squad; with defending winner Spaniard Marc Coma largely expected to with the event. Their direct rivals were the factory Honda squad, with fellow Spaniard Joan Barreda Bort and Portugese Paolo Goncalves among the favorites there. Factory teams from Yamaha and Sherco were also present, though in the end the fight was KTM vs. Honda. Of course, let's not forget that around 161 bikes started the event, so there was more out there than the fight for the win. For most, just making it to the end is victory in itself.
As the rally went on, Barreda lead for most of the first week heading into towards the rest day. Honda riders were showing plenty of speed and had won most of the weeks stages, but it in the end it wasn't meant to be. The eventual winner, Marc Coma, outlasted everyone to claim his fifth Dakar triumph. Barreda, while fast, fell victim to the salt flats in Bolivia. While a large part of the bike and quad field was affected, Barreda lost too much time and couldn't recover. Eventual runner-up Goncalves tried his best to claw back time, but a 15-minute time penalty ended his challenge. KTM rider and Dakar rookie Toby Price from Australia managed an impressive third place finish.
Of special note, Spanish female rider Laia Sanz of the factory KTM squad finished 9th in the overall bike standing; the highest finish ever for a woman in the Dakar bike category.
Sadly, one rider, Michael Hernick of Poland, died in the early stages of the rally after an apparent crash. This is just a reminder of how dangerous this event truly his. Competitors, especially the riders, can sometimes suffer the ultimate consequence as the chase their dreams.
Of the 161 bikes, only 79 made it to the finish.
While no true factory team exists in the quad category, the Yamaha riders make up the bulk. Eventual winner Rafael Sonik of Poland had a fight on his hands in the early stages with challenges from Chilean Ignacio Casale and Sergio Lafuente of Uruguay. However, mechanical problems sidelined Casale in the later stages while a crash damaged Lafuente's machine. As a result, Sonik outlasted his opponents to claim his first victory.
Of the 45 quads at the start, only 18 made it to the finish.
The story of the car category was whether or not anyone could knock off the German X-Raid Team and their bulletproof Mini vehicles. The team, twice with 11-time winner Stephane Peterhansel of France and last year with Spaniard Nani Roma, had claimed the overall victory in the car category with their diesel-powered 4x4 machine the last three years, though ether was some hope for the competitors. After Peterhansel's departure, Roma nows leads the team along with quick Argentine Orlando Terranova and Krzysztof Holowcyzc of Poland. Qatari and Olympic Bronze Medalist Nasser Al-Attiyah, a former winner in 2011, would also participate in a Mini while X-Raid would also test out a buggy vehicle with Frenchman Guerlain Chicherit.
Supported by the Belgian Overdrive team, a number of gas-powered Toyota Hilux pickups, lead by South African Giniel de Villiers, would prove a decent challenge. Among their ranks also included Saudi driver and Dakar rookie Yazeed AlRajhi and Dutchman Bernard ten Brinke.
Making a return to the Dakar was the factory squad from French manufacturer Peugeot. Their three two-wheel drive buggy-based vehicles would be riven by Peterhansel, WRC-veteran Carlos Sainz from Spain, and Frenchman Cyril Despres who was making his transition from bikes to cars.
Other notable entries included the SMG-buggy team, as well as the lone American entry from Baja and NASCAR star Robby Gordon in his custom-made Gordini buggy.
In a show of flat-out dominance Nasser Al-Attiyah would take the overall victory as once again the X-Raid Minis showed themselves to be the car of choice for the Dakar; taking four of the top-five places in the overall standings. Only de Villier's Toyota in 2nd kept the German team from taking a top-three sweep of the podium for a second year running. Likewise, the only non-Minis to win stages this year was Yazeed in the Toyota, and Robby Gordon's Gordini.
While showing some promise, the factory Peugeot's had a variety of mechanical issues that kept them down the order. Sainz trashed out, while both Peterhansel and Depres made it to the finish. Likewise the Gordini of Robby Gordon suffered mechanical issues in the early going; but finished the rally in 19th overall.
As for other notable results, Ronan Chabot of France in the SMG buggy won the two-wheel drive class with Gordon winning the Open Category (cars conforming to SCORE regulations). The T2 sub-class was won by Jun Mitsuhashi of Japan in his production-based Toyota Land Cruiser while T3 went to William Alcarez of France in his Polaris RXR XP.
Of the 137 cars that started, only 67 finished.
Lastly, it is the big boys. Russian manufacturer Kamaz was back with four trucks piloted by defending winner Andrey Karginov, 2013 winner Eduard Nicolaev, Airat Mardeev, and Dimitry Sotnikov. The Dutch De Rooy team with their green Iveco trucks with Gerard De Rooy, Hans Stacey, and Spaniard Pep Vila Roca would try to get back to winning ways with Czech driver Ales Loprais in his MAN truck would also go for glory.
In the end it was Kamaz finishing 1-2-3-5 with Mardeev the eventual winner. Loprais would finish fourth with the De Rooy suffering a disappointing rally.
Out of 63 trucks, only 43 finished.
Overall the 2015 edition of the Dakar Rally was one for the ages. While Nasser dominated in the cars; it was a dog-fight elsewhere in the standings. Likewise, KTM solidified their dominance in the bikes, but Honda will be back next year. In any case, it was once again a thrilling events, and the vistas themselves once again never failed to disappoint.
I can't wait to see what Peugeot does when the come back for 2016. You can bet they will not rest on their laurels. Likewise, it will be interesting to see what Robby Gordon can do; being an independent team with a smaller budget.
As it stands, rally raid is my favorite sport, and I will try my best to follow the other events that will follow in the year. With the FIA Cross Country Rally World Cup and the FIM Cross Country Rallies World Championship, there will be plenty of events to follow. If only we had coverage of these in the States.
In any case, thank you for reading, and I leave you with an excellent video serving as highlights of the rally.