NASCAR racers have it easy as they only have to drive 500 miles max in a race and they never drive in the wet. F1 drivers have it even easier as they never have to drive more than two hours. World Rally Championship (WRC) drivers have it a little tougher as they have to drive in all conditions for three days in each event. Few, if any of the top drivers ever have to work on their own cars.
Hiroshi Masuoaka/Picard Gilles, winner in 2003, finished second this year to his teammate
Why is it then that several former world champion racers enjoy getting their hands dirty, digging themselves out of ditches and repairing their own race cars during an event? Answer: It's the challenge. And the ultimate racing challenge happens every January in Northern Africa.
The Dakar, formerly know as the Paris-Dakar Race and now in its 26th year, has become one of motor racing's epic events. It attracts hundreds of competitors from all over the world and is one of the most watched events on television. There'll even be a cinematic documentary on the race hitting the big screen this summer called "The Last Road Trip -- Paris to Dakar."
Nissan mounted a serious attack on the Dakar with four heavily modified pickup trucks. For
It's the ultimate off-road race as it runs for three weeks and covers 7000 miles, of which half are run at competitive speeds. It's like seven Indy 500s, three Le Mans, four Baja 1000s, or two full seasons of the WRC rolled into one big event.
"Finishing Dakar will mean more to me than winning Monte Carlo," Colin McRae opined when he finally arrived one day after the leaders at the bivouac. Undoubtedly the well-known former World Rally Champ was the star attraction on this year's race. Pundits never thought he'd enjoy the event unless he was in with a chance to win. But after getting stuck, working on the car, and sleeping in the desert he began to enjoy the challenge. Getting to the finish in Dakar is without a doubt the thrill that drives competitors from all over the world to return to this single event.
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.
Volkswagen entered two diesel-powered Touareg racecars with two former Dakar winners as dr
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.
The privately financed X-Raid team from Germany entered a pair of diesel-powered X5 SUVs a
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.
Service crews are a vital part of the whole event as the competition lasts for 18 days and covers nearly 7000 miles with almost half of that special stages run at speed. Terrain and weather conditions ranged from short, muddy stages in France and covered with snow covered trails, to long marathon runs over 450 miles in the Sahara Desert in blistering 100 degree weather. According to the regulars, this year's course was the toughest in a decade. The organizers did that in response to complaints that the 2003 course was too easy.
Jean-Louis Schlesser has been the most successful Dakar privateer, wining several times. T
The kick was in the middle of the event when long stages in Mauritania were run back to back. The catch was that the service trucks were not allowed to join the race vehicles in the bivouac each night. Instead competitors had to rely on their own ingenuity and the somewhat limited assistance available from the race trucks, which also had to cover the same stages.
By the end of the longest stage there were literally dozens of stranded cars and trucks scattered across hundreds of miles of desert. Late runners were not getting any sleep and there were reported cases of roaming "security forces" demanding "rewards" in the form of sleeping bags, food, etc. in order to "protect" competitors from "bandits." For safety and security reasons the organizers decided to cancel two stages in Mali so that the stranded competitors could catch up without being penalized for arriving late.
Without a doubt the most spectacular race vehicles are these monster trucks, which compete
It was on this infamous longest stage on the rally that McRae got stranded after his Nissan truck suffered a broken transmission when he got stuck on a sand dune. McRae and his Swedish co-driver Tina Thorner had to camp under the stars for more than 12 hours while they waited for the race truck to catch up and tow them out of the desert.
Like so many Dakar contestants McRae might have become frustrated, but he was in a remarkably chirpy mood when he reached the rest-day bivouac. "It's a love/hate relationship," he said. These are sentiments echoed by many.
When it was all over, McRae managed to set fastest time on two stages near the end of the rally but he had lost so much time in other areas that he ended up in 20th position out of 50 finishers in the car class. But at least he finished. Vatanen was not so lucky as he managed to find a lone tree on one section of empty desert just three days from the finish. Fortunately, only his car was seriously injured, though his race was over.
Mark Miller, winner of the 2003 Baja 1000, competed in a Chevrolet-sponsored Pro Truck but
VW's Kleinschmidt, who won the event in 2001 in a Mitsubishi, also suffered from an unfortunate mishap. The diesel engine drowned on a deep river crossing. The car had to be towed out and the engine needed a total rebuild. She lost so much time that, despite winning one stage and finishing third on the marathon stage, she only managed to finish in 17th position overall. Bruno Saby took a steady run and finished in sixth position overall behind Andrea Mayer, who was the highest placed woman, in a Mitsubishi. VW could not take honors as the highest placed diesel-powered car either, as that accomplishment went to Luc Alphand in the BMW X5 in fourth position. That left the podium finishes to previous winners: Schlesser took third in his Schlesser-Ford buggy, second went to Hiroshi Masuoka in a Mitsubishi Pajero Evo, and first place was captured by Stephane Peterhansel (also in a Pajero Evo, needless to say) who became the second person to win by racing on a motorcycle and in a car.
Every night over 20 planes airlift the mammoth support organization from location to locat
So endeth the 26th Dakar. Another epic. Although nothing really untoward happened this year, it was a tough one that truly tested the stamina of all competitors and their support teams. Heartache was the worst that befell all but a handful of motorcyclists who suffered broken bones. Competitors and crews are already planning for next year's Dakar. Nobody knows where it will run -- the French organizers will not announce the basic route until late spring. The exact route will not be known until later in the year and the precise GPS waypoints and tracks to be conquered will not be disclosed to co-drivers until the evening before each stage during the event. Hundreds of competitors are ready once again to endure long days of driving through incredible, often hostile terrain, risk getting stuck for hours on end, and certainly getting dirty and tired -- all with the driving ambition to "get to Dakar."
Check www.dakar.com for more details on the rally.