It's also what drives major manufacturers to spend millions of dollars competing. During the past decade, Mitsubishi has won the most times, only conceding the overall win on occasions to Jean-Louis Schlesser, the long-time French competitor driving his own Ford-powered buggy.

Judging by the number of support trucks (eight) and 68 team mechanics, masseurs, doctors, and even a chef, Nissan was the manufacturer putting the most effort into defeating Mitsubishi this year. With two former world rally champs -- Ari Vatanen and Colin McRae -- driving two of the four heavily modified Frontier pickup trucks Nissan looked set to give Mitsubishi, with its four Pajero Evo SUVs, a run for its money.

Volkswagen was the third company with a major presence. It entered two specially built tubular-framed diesel Touaregs for the first time. With two previous Dakar winners -- Jutta Kleinschmidt and Bruno Saby -- driving the cars, VW was looking for a good finish with the goal of winning in a year or two.

A fourth team with a chance of doing well was the X-Raid team campaigning two heavily modified diesel BMW X5s. It was not an official factory team but nonetheless had shown promise in 2003.

Besides these high-buck factory teams, there were hundreds of other competitors on motorbikes and ATVs, as well as in SUVs and giant trucks. By giant we mean giant -- two Chevrolet Pro-Trucks (one driven by Baja 1000 winner Mark Miller) were classified as cars to differentiate them from the real trucks, many of which compete in the actual race to provide on-course assistance to their teammates, when needed.