The fifth Dakar on the South American continent took off-road racers through three countries over a course of approximately 5000 miles. Starting in Lima, Peru, the finish location for last year's edition, and continuing on a southward track crisscrossing Argentina and Chile, it finished two weeks later in Santiago, after participants from around the globe battled the elements and other riders. Many came to win or place among the top finishers; others prayed simply to finish an event that is for many the culmination of years of hopes, dreams, and preparation, or to cross off one of the world's top challenges on their bucket list.

There was an unusual twist from the start. This year's opening route directed racers over one of the continent's largest chains of dunes; navigation errors and "stucks" wreaked havoc for countless and separated the field of top racers from the rest. The rally's first ascent of the Andes Cordillera, over Argentina's highest mountain pass brought the competitors to a record high 16,322 feet, along with a high-altitude "special" stage that added the rigors of frigid temperatures as well as decreasing power and performance from the racing machines -- and the drivers. It was then onward to gaucho country, making tracks and finding each day's requisite waypoints over a broad range of terrain that required talent in a host of different types of driving, plus the fortitude for extreme endurance of rugged tracks, strong winds, and high temperatures. Swollen rivers and flooding caused the cancellation of two race stages, removing some 500 race kilometers, an issue with which some competitors and others associated with the rally took issue. The close in Chile's capital city was a finale designed to delight spectators, as Dakar finishers performed skids and jumps to celebrate their completed journey in a rally considered the world's most arduous 4WD event.

Along with the harshness and the need for navigational precision was the opportunity to enjoy a collection of picture-postcard landscapes, with ergs (sand or dune seas with no vegetative cover), hoodoos (tall thin spines or chimneys of rock), canyons, and cacti. In addition, there was the red and green backdrop of Argentina's most picturesque natural landscape, with wooded areas, and barren plateaus laden with rocks and stones. This led to Chile's breathtaking high desert vistas, and every type of visual delight that provides the allure for those who compete in off-road racing and long-distance 4WD rallies. Motoring through beauty has always been a mission of the Dakar, since Thierry Sabine started the rally in 1979.

"The route was unique from other Dakars, and I was excited when I first saw it," said well-known American off-road champion Darren Skilton, who has participated in nine Dakar Rallys (seven as a competitor) and, until last year, had been the U.S. Dakar representative. Although Skilton did not participate this year, he shared his thoughts at the rally's end.

"It was interesting that the dunes came at the start, rather than having them integrated into the route at the middle or the end. For me, it made it somewhat anti-climactic, as it opened up big gaps between racers early on. I think there were two factors that led to the high finishing rate [which was 2/3 of the racers, rather than the typical 50 or 60 percent]: There were a lot of liaison miles and also, with weather issues, racing miles were cut, making the rally easier -- which isn't necessarily what Dakar is about," said Skilton, who plans to compete in some other international rallies this year and plans to return to Dakar for the 2014 edition, fielding a two-vehicle team.

The Dakar

Legendary for its off-road dangers and drama, especially with its previous African editions, the Dakar began in 1979. Originally called the Paris-Dakar, or Paris to Dakar Rally, because of its start in the French capital city, and its namesake finish in the capital of Senegal in North Africa, which was used for almost all editions. When the rally moved to South America in 2009, there was concern that it would lose its mystique and modify the character of what is branded the toughest motorsport endurance event in the world, with Motorcycle, Quad, Auto/Car, and Truck classes. Many manufacturers use the harsh environment of the rally as a test bed and to demonstrate the capability of their vehicles, although most are heavily modified or purpose built.

Organized by the Amaury Sport Organization, the French media group that also runs the Tour de France, the off-road endurance race is called a rally-raid rather than a conventional rally, because the course is more extreme; and the vehicles are authentic off-roaders, instead of the modified on-road models used in rallies like the WRC. Open to professionals and amateurs, Dakar competitors motor over liaison stages to begin special -- or race -- stages when the route requires. Each day's course can range from short distance to nearly 600 miles long, and is set up with a string of way points that racers must pass, or face time penalties. A delayed finish during the rally also has a time consequence; however, there is no grace for missing the start of each day's stage -- the price is exclusion.

35th Edition Dakar Winners Make the Record Books

Five, five, two, one. When the dust cleared, it was an extraordinary feat of finishes for the record books as Frenchman Cyril Despres (KTM) took top honors for the fifth time in the motorcycle category and Frenchman Stephane Peterhansel (Mini) earned his fifth victory in a car, but his 11th in all categories -- a new record at Dakar. On quads, Argentina's Marcos Patronelli rode his Yamaha to victory for the second time, following his brother Alejandro's win last year. And, in the truck (or giant lorry) class, first-time winner Eduard Nikolaev (Kamaz) took the title for Russia.

Riding his 12th Dakar, the internationally heralded Despres showed a strong physical and technical performance, despite a few trials, and caught up with Cyril Neveu for the number of Dakar wins on bikes; Despres is one win away from matching the record for the most victories on a motorcycle, held by Peterhansel; the legendary racer led this year's auto class from the second stage, but benefited greatly from mistakes made by his top rivals and took only two stage wins. Facing the most competitive field ever in the quad class, Patronelli held off fellow ATV racers to pull off his second win.

This year marked a return to glory for the Kamazs, with an 11th win and an impressive 1-2-3 finish, with Russians Eduard Nikolaev, Ayrat Mardeev, and Andrey Karginov at the wheel of the humongous trucks that are allowed to carry three competitors -- a driver, navigator, and mechanic. Although Nikolaev took home the top prize, he made history as the first truck driver to win the rally without taking a win in any stages and, surprisingly, the top three Russian race teams only won four stages overall, while defending champion Dutchman Gerard de Rooy (Iveco) took six; although fastest on the course, a broken turbo on stage 9 hobbled his hopes for a first-place finish and brought him across the line in fourth instead.

Of note: Even though 4WD buggies won the top six places (including three Minis), slight changes in the rule books with restrictor size allowed some two-wheel-drive cars to garner attention as well; they were rewarded with seven stage wins (three for Nasser Al-Attiyah, two for Robby Gordon, and one each for Carlos Sainz and Guerlain Chicherit). Ronan Chabot placed seventh in Santiago and was the best overall performance by a 2WD car, since Robby Gordon finished third in 2009. Tapped as best rookie was Russian Vladimir Vasilyev, who finished 16th overall with his G-Force prototype. Dutchman Tim Coronel won the solo race again by placing 55th overall, while Colombia's Martha Marino, the only woman to finish in a car, placed 88th. Laia Sanz, the solo female motorcycle rider to finish, placed 93rd. In last place at 125th was Luis Belaustegui, who completed the Dakar in this third attempt on a 150cc KTM, after spending 60 hours more than Despres on the course.

2013 Dakar Winners Ranking 2013
Pos. N Name
1 302 Stephane PETERHANSEL (FRA)
2 301 Giniel DE VILLIERS (ZAF)
3 307 Leonid NOVITSKIY (RUS)
Pos. N Name
1 501 Eduard NIKOLAEV (RUS)
2 505 Ayrat MARDEEV (RUS)
3 510 Andrey KARGINOV (RUS)
Pos. N Name
1 1 Cyril DESPRES (FRA)
2 11 Ruben FARIA (PRT)
3 7 Francisco LOPEZ (CHL)
Pos. N Name
1 250 Marcos PATRONELLI (ARG)
2 254 Ignacio Nicolas CASALE (CHL)
3 253 Rafal SONIK (POL)