How'd you like to race an SUV at high speeds through breathtakingly beautiful deserts and sand dunes for 18 days? Each year, competitors do just that in the famous Dakar Rally Raid, also known as the Paris-Dakar race. In the past 25 years, it has become one of the best-known races in the world, traversing different parts of Africa, but almost always incorporated Paris and Dakar as the start and finishing points. In 2003, however, the Rallye Telefonica Dakar started in the south of France and went through Spain before the vehicles were ferried to Tunisia from whence they traversed the Sahara Desert in Libya and Egypt.

The Dakar Rally is one of several cross-country rallys in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and South America. Ironically, it's the only race series dominated by SUVs, despite the fact that they're far less popular elsewhere in the world than in the U.S.

Off-road racing in the U.S. operates under entirely different rules that make it difficult for a Dakar-type SUV to be competitive. For over a decade, Mitsubishi has all but dominated the Dakar, with its Pajero (Montero) SUV winning the event eight times. This year, though, it saw some keen competition from VW, BMW, and Nissan, in addition to private entrants in Nissan, Toyota, and Mercedes-Benz SUVs, and even Chevrolet and Ford trucks.

There were two diesel-powered BMW X5s entered by Sven Quandt, who happens to be one of the owners of BMW. He's also the team manager for Mitsubishi Motorsport. Nissan South Africa entered a team of crew-cab pickup trucks, but the big interest was in VW's all-new factory team. Now that VW is in the SUV market, what better place to demonstrate its prowess than by competing in a major off-road event?

VW intends to enter a Touareg in the 2004 running of the Dakar rally, so it considered 2003 an exploratory year by using a light-weight 1.9-liter/218-horse diesel-powered California-made buggy called Tarek. VW's main driver is Jutta Kleinschmidt, who became the first woman to win the event overall in 2001 in a Mitsubishi.

From the start, it was clear Mitsubishi was going to dominate the event with an Evolution version of the Pajero (displayed at the 2002 Los Angeles auto show), powered by a 3.5-liter/270-horse engine. The team dominated, with Hiroshi Masuoka taking the overall victory for the second year in a row. However, for all but the last two days he'd been running in second place to his teammate, Frenchman Stephane Peterhansel, who led every day--until he hit a rock while making up time after a small mechanical problem. He dropped to fourth behind two other Mitsus.

Two of the 280-horse V-6 Nissan pickups finished in fifth and seventh, while two of the VW Tareks finished in sixth and eighth positions. Kleinschmidt finished eighth after a lot of teething troubles early on, just ahead of a BMW X5. VW had won the 2WD class and the diesel-powered-vehicle category.

In all, 67 of the 130 SUVs, buggies, pickups, and heavy-duty support vehicles finished the grueling 19-day event. The competitors had covered 5345 miles, with 3260 miles of special stages run at a winning average speed of 67 mph. Each day included a timed high-speed stage ranging in length from 16 to 365 miles. In previous years, the Dakar had been affected by political strife, but this year's event was relatively trouble free, though one competitor lost his life and one vehicle was damaged by a land mine.

The organizers have yet to announce the course for next-year's Dakar. Check out www.dakar.com to find out more about this fascinating event. The following manufacturer sites also provide great pictures and stories: www.touareg-dakar.com; www.nissan-dakar.com; www.x-raid.de; www.mitsubishi-motors.co.jp/motorsports/.


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