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.
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) |
Taking the podium in Santiago were 124 motorcycle riders, 26 quad drivers, 89 car crews, and 60 truck teams that proudly celebrated their arrival, as the president of the Republic and a worldwide audience congratulated the finishers of the 2013 Dakar. After 14 days of racing some 5000 miles, 67 percent (299/449) of the vehicles on the start list in Lima made it to the end. All -- whether simply starters or the fortunate finishers -- have a story to tell.
Among the finishers were three American teams with fascinating stories. Robby Gordon came to win; the rebel racer garnered a couple top stage wins and numerous top stage finishes, but also collected a batch of bad luck. He never gave up trying -- which is one of the reasons he's loved around the globe. Johnny Campbell, who at 41 is past his prime as a motorcycle rally racer, signed on as a Honda rider, bike tester, and "waterboy," with literally no time to train, but the Baja favorite crossed the finish, even after a couple crashes resulted in injury, plus posted a second-place finish on a day when he started 70th. Kurt Caselli, who was asked by KTM to replace one of the world's top racers, had a week and a half to prepare, 30 minutes to ride his rally bike before the race, and had never read a rally book; the newbie to Dakar came home with two first-place stage wins and a 31st place finish.
They call him the American Rebel and a cowboy, and Robby Gordon likes it! The showman and internationally renowned racer finished his eighth Dakar hungry for the overall win that he is sure he has in his back pocket, but has yet to capture.
"We blew it on day one," said Gordon, referring to a 10-minute penalty that turned into 30 minutes for he and navigator Kellan Walch. Walch has a Dakar stage win on a motorcycle to his credit and also raced with Gordon in 2011, when the team was forced to retire at stage 4. Last year, Gordon was ousted due to the non-conformity of his Hummer, a contentious issue with the Dakar organization, as Gordon's setup was approved before the start.
"Or, if we could have just started on day 5, because we were one of the fastest cars in the event and led most of the way points again," explained Gordon, who drove his 2WD SPEED Energy MAPEI Hummer to two stage wins and eight podium finishes this year, despite a rollover on day 4 in the dunes that cracked the Hummer's radiators and sapped time from the team's standing. "I was also frustrated by the cancellation of stages, because I think we should have won those and placed seventh," added the crowd-pleasing driver who made history during his first Dakar in 2005 in a VW Race Touareg, as the first American to win a stage in the car class on the Dakar. After another stage victory, he put in a spectacular barrel roll on his way to finishing 12th overall that year.
Could've, would've, should've, you might think. But, the truth is that's the Robby Gordon story. The 43-year-old is one of the best of the best and just won the 2012 Best in the Desert title. He's talented and hard-working, but this year's rally (as well as others) consisted of ups and downs. Successes? He's placed third overall at Dakar in 2009, and he's loved by the fans where ever he goes. What you've gotta love, though, is that Gordon doesn't stop. A Dakar press release during the event offered this: No matter the outcome of the stage, the two continued to battle, capturing eight podiums and two stage wins in the world's toughest off-road race.
Make no mistake about it: Gordon's mission is to win overall, so he could have closed up shop after stage 4 and gone home; others have. But Gordon said that continuing with the Rally would help overall in developing the Hummer to make it stronger to come back in 2014 to capture the ultimate goal in an overall win. He planned to win the Dakar in five years. It has been eight. But he'll be back. He believes he has the fastest car in the field, and has just one dog to hunt. He wants victory and, if possible, to humiliate his rivals.
When he finished 14th overall, the showman spun his Hummer in his signature donuts for hundreds of fans waiting to greet him. And, while Gordon's team needs rest after several days of camping in the desert, he returned stateside to begin racing immediately, first with the Best of the Desert Parker 250, followed by the King of the Hammers. That doesn't even account for his NASCAR participation and his own off-road racing series, Stadium Super Trucks. Now, that's a racer you've gotta love!
Kurt Caselli -- 31st Bikes
"It's been on my bucket list for the past 5-6 years. Dakar is the pinnacle of off-road racing," said Californian Kurt Caselli, 29, the talented championship motorcycle rider who began riding at the age of 4 and started desert racing in southern California when he was 12. "I've been riding with KTM for 12 years and was shocked to get the call from my boss one and a half weeks before the Dakar started that KTM of Europe wanted to use me as a replacement for world champion motorcycle rider Marc Coma." Coma, who has won the Dakar three times and placed second in 2012, was unable to race due to a shoulder injury.
"I was apprehensive but wanted to go, and had no expectation to do well, so just showed up with 'How To Read a Road Book,' as I had never ridden a rally bike or read a rally road book," offered the international racing and enduro champ and Baja racer. "Coma sat with me the night before, which was great. Riding-wise, Dakar wasn't that hard. In fact, it was not as technical as I expected, with some pretty basic riding, but it was a bit of a gamble for KTM to put me on their factory team." The gamble paid off as Caselli won two stages and earned the nickname "Special K." He placed 31st overall in bikes.
"They were happy with my finish, but I was frustrated with my results due to some navigation problems getting lost, and losing three waypoints, but it's a learning experience and it makes me want to go back and ride with more experience. The high point was riding a motorcycle in South America for two weeks, meeting a lot of different people, and sleeping on the floor during the marathon leg."
Johnny Campbell -- 40th Bikes
This illustrious biker has been dubbed "Mr. Baja 1000." As the 11-time winner of this legendary off-road race, and a five-time Baja 500 champion, Johnny Campbell revisited the Dakar 12 years after his first run, in 2001; he finished eighth in bikes then and called it an "amazing journey." Last year, the Californian came back to Dakar as Robby Gordon's co-driver and, despite racing all over the world, he still remembers the "amazing" thrill of going down the daunting and celebrated nearly mile-long Iquique dune in Gordon's Hummer at 136 mph. It has a gradient of close to 40 percent.
He thought he was done with Dakar. "I'm past my prime as a racer," said Campbell, 41, who stopped racing professionally in 2008, and owns and operates American Honda's motorcycle racing team. "But a call came in August from Honda worldwide and they offered an opportunity to join the factory team at Dakar, requesting that I ride a new motorcycle for development purposes -- testing was being done for higher top speed, ergonomics, and handling, and an evaluation of the fuel tank's placement -- and to be the 'waterboy' for Helder Rodriques, who had two third-place finishes in the last two years (Rodriques was seventh this year). A waterboy helps fix the bike of an assigned rider and is a parts donor, when needed."
"So, this year was a present to me in my semi-post-racing career and the first time I participated on the HRC factory team. I figured I better do it before I got too old, but it was a challenge to go this year, being that I was not racing or riding when I conducted a test with American Honda in August, and when I already had the next four months of my schedule filled. So, in December when we finalized the Dakar, I really had only 10 days to prepare; I was happy just to be Rodriques' waterboy and to be in the background, as I don't have the aggressiveness I used to have."
It came as a complete surprise and delight when Campbell took second place the day following the biker's two-day marathon stage, without support and sleeping in the desert overnight. By that time, Campbell was tired. "I had a crash on day 3 that left me with bruised ribs. I was already fatigued by early morning wake-ups and long days at the handle bars, plus the two crossings of the Andes; we crossed with 4 a.m. starts that required being overdressed for below-freezing temperatures, and riding in the dark at an altitude that affects your focus."
"When we got to the marathon stage, my job was to help Rodriques, so I had been very conservative in my riding. It turned out that Helger had a problem with a rear tire and his nav switch. So, I gave him my back wheel and automatic Trippy nav system and set off with his wheel and had to switch the navigation pages by hand. However, I started 70th and finished second, due to navigation errors on the part of other riders -- the waterboy with a bald tire that had to take his hand off his bike to navigate!" Campbell enthused.
Despite another fall that zapped him of his core strength, Campbell finished 40th overall, with his love of Dakar intact. "I loved the vastness and remoteness of some of the stages in the deserts that brought mystique and the magic of riding down kilometer-tall dunes, where you can't even see the bottom. I also loved having a motorhome and showers and a physiotherapist as some of the benefits of being part of the HRC team," the semi-retired Dakar finisher said.
All photos copyright ASO