Normally, the Dakar starts out with somewhat easy stages before the real competition begins in Africa, but this was far from the case in Argentina. The first two stages across the dusty pampas proved disastrous for many teams that got lost or stuck for hours. As it turns out, this foreshadowed what was to come.

The Touareg driven by former World Rally Championship champion Carlos Sainz (Spain) and co-driven by Michel Perin (France) took the lead on the second day. But even Sainz found the pace tough as he rolled on the fifth day and dropped to second. The team's closest competition was coming from the BMW driven by Nasser Al-Attiyah (Qatar)/Tina Thoerner (Sweden), which had won on the first day and was the apparent winner on the sixth.

The privately run BMW team has shown it was competitive in past rally raid events but had never been seen as a threat to Mitsubishi or VW for an overall win in the Dakar. Unfortunately, Al-Attiyah had engine problems and skipped a couple secret checkpoints on the sixth day, so he was excluded. By the time the Dakar competitors crossed the Andes into Chile for a well-deserved rest day, things looked good for VW with three cars at the top of the standings. Mitsubishi's race had completely unraveled. The team suffered numerous problems, and the sole Racing Lancer driven by Nani Roma/Lucas Cruz Senra (Spain/Spain) was in fourth place. However they could still take the win, as they were only 15 minutes behind Mark Miller (USA) and Ralph Pitchford (South Africa) in the third-place Touareg. Miller was another 14 minutes behind Giniel de Villiers (South Africa) and Dirk von Zitzewitz (Germany) in the second-place Touareg. They in turn were just nine seconds behind Sainz after almost 24 hours of racing in the previous seven days.

The only other American competing this year in the car division was Robby Gordon, who had become a favorite with the Argentinians, as they loved the sound and sight of his monstrous Hummer. We caught up with Gordon on the rest day, and he was in fine form as he was working his way up the results table in his Hummer, having taken it easy in the first days. "As I get older, I'm learning not to go crazy from the start," said Robby. "I'm pacing myself, but feel confident we can still win." Robby's co-driver for the third year was Californian Andy Grider.

Although Gordon was in fifth place, he was only an hour or so behind the leader. While it may have seemed as though the three leading VWs were in an unassailable position, there was still plenty of room for change. As Kris Nissen, VW's motorsport director, pointed out: "We are on course for success, but we nevertheless need to remain focused and not make any mistakes if we want to achieve our objective of winning the Dakar. And to do that, we must overcome the rally itself first, as it is and will continue to be our toughest adversary. We can already safely say this is the hardest Dakar Rally ever."

The 10th day was regarded by many the key stage in this year's race. It was a loop that ran through the sand dunes in the Atacama Desert in central Chile. Regular Dakar competitors quickly discovered the terrain was very similar to the toughest stages in Mauritania. However, coastal fog at lower altitudes forced the organizers to delay the start and shorten the course. But fewer miles didn't make it easy, as there were hardly any competitors who didn't get stuck at least once in the soft sand.