Event Coverage: 2010 Dakar Rally Race
Dakar - the rally race, not the African city - seems to have had a knack for delivering heartbreak to the leading drivers the past few years. It's a tough event and almost no one comes away without losing bags of time due to mechanical problems or getting stuck in sand dunes. Even the eventual winner will suffer a few punctures and navigational errors. To win, you must take setbacks in stride and finish the 14-day event with over 3000 miles of competitive driving in 14 daily stages - it's like running 14 Baja races back to back.
When the 2008 Dakar Rally was canceled because of terrorist threats, many thought it would spell the end of the annual event. After all, Dakar is in Africa and traversing the Sahara Desert was a key element in the toughest of all off-road races.
Fortunately, there are other deserts in the world and Dakar moved to Argentina and Chile last year, where it went off without a hitch and was as tough as ever.
Volkswagen returned in 2010 to defend its title and provided 35 Amarok trucks for use by the organizers and as support vehicles for the race team. In addition to returning drivers South African Giniel de Villiers, Spaniard Carlos Sainz, and American Mark Miller, there were two new drivers on the VW team - hotshot Nasser Al-Attiyah from Qatar and Brazilian Mauricio Neves - all in Race Touaregs.
Even though Mitsubishi (which had owned the race with back-to-back wins for five years) was a no-show this year, Volkswagen was still up against a tough competitor: the X-raid BMW team campaigning X3s. After an additional year of development, X-raid had made great strides and added former Mitsubishi drivers Stephane Peterhansel and Nani Roma; VW was well aware the 2010 race might not go its way.
Then there were Robby Gordon and Andy Grider with their crowd-pleasing Hummer, who had high hopes for a win this year. The second Vanguard-sponsored Hummer was driven by B.J. Baldwin, while a third Hummer was driven by Carlo de Gavardo of Chile.
If anything, the throngs of spectators were larger this year than last as more than 360 bikes, quads, cars, and trucks set off from Buenos Aires on January 1. This year's event was run in the opposite direction and included an additional four days in the super-dry Atacama Desert in Chile.
Right off the bat, the X-raid BMW team proved it was a force to be reckoned with when Peterhansel had garnered a seven-minute lead over Sainz by the end of the fourth day as the race crossed the Andes into Chile. But, as in every Dakar, fortunes can change overnight, and on the fifth stage it was Peterhansel's BMW that suffered a broken driveshaft, which put Sainz in the lead less than five minutes ahead of Al-Attiyah. Miller, though, was happiest at the end of this really rough and long stage in the Atacama Desert, as he grabbed his first-ever stage win in a Dakar event.
Volkswagen was now pretty confident it could repeat its win, and the team's only worry was Robby Gordon in fourth place, 50 minutes behind Miller. Unfortunately for Gordon, though, everything went wrong on stage seven, when he suffered a broken alternator that cost him almost three hours and blew away any chance of a podium finish. VW now had a lock on the race with the three leading cars. Would Sainz be able to keep Al-Attiyah behind him for the balance of the race?
The remaining days of the race back to Buenos Aires were as exciting as any Dakar in recent memory as team orders allowed Sainz and Al-Attiyah to battle it out for first place. Miller was always right behind in third place to save the day should Sainz and Al-Attiyah take each other out. The two did not let up at all, and gradually Al-Attiyah shaved a few minutes here and there. Despite the speed of the VWs, Peterhansel also took a couple more stage wins in his X3.
It came down to the last stage and the final 129 miles. Sainz, with vast experience in the WRC, was well at home on the fast rally-type stage, and he won with a margin of two minutes - the closest finish in Dakar history. Miller was third with his fourth consecutive top-five finish, the most consistent record of any of the leading Dakar drivers in the past five years. Peterhansel's repaired BMW remained strong, and he managed a fourth place spot, albeit over two hours behind. Gordon was in eighth place some six hours back.
Reflecting on the event, Miller tells us, "The stage win was a good day, but the best was probably the WRC stage at La Serena, where we were third behind Carlos [Sainz] and Stephane [Peterhansel]. I was quickest to halfway and had to settle behind the dust of the Chicherit BMW. He wouldn't move over, or it could have been stage win number two as I was really flying that day. It confirmed that I am driving in all conditions, including WRC style, with the fastest guys, even faster than the Nasser wunderkind."
He hopes his contract with VW will be renewed.
"I had a great Dakar even if I only finished third. In a normal year, I did exactly what it takes to win Dakar. So I can say it was my best performance in a Dakar yet. That gives me motivation to improve in the places where I know I can and compete for a win next year."
Gordon is determined to return with his Hummer. "Just because we finished eighth this year doesn't mean we were not competitive. We won a special and should've won about four specials. The three and a half hours we lost with the alternator was the biggest single setback; we were in fourth overall after five stages. The Hummer was a lot faster this year. We closed the gap in the WRC sections from ten minutes a special to less than three. So I was very pleased with that."
The race organizers haven't yet announced where the 2011 Dakar will be held. There are rumors it may return to Africa, but the event has proven so popular with the fans in Argentina and Chile that most bets are on it staying there.
Gordon sums it up well: "My favorite two days were departing Buenos Aires on day one and returning there the final day. The amount of fan support and excitement is incredible. There is so much opportunity in Argentina and Chile for this rally to grow, it gives me goosebumps. I hope we go back to Argentina in 2011."