It's midsummer in January, and we're in the world's driest desert. We crawl out of our tents in a bivouac surrounded by gorgeous mammoth sand dunes, but it's foggy and damp, so foggy that the helicopters can't take off, hence the start of the day's racing has to be delayed several hours.

Confused? Well, we aren't in Africa anymore.

Dakar, the Senegalese city, still exists in western Africa, but for the first time in the 30-year history of the famous Dakar race, Africa did not feature in the event. Last year's event had to be canceled because of serious terrorist threats just hours before the competitors left Lisbon, Portugal, to race across the Sahara to Dakar.

Within weeks, officials from Argentina and Chile met with ASO, the French race organizers, and offered to host the race in South America. This is why over 800 competitors in/on 500 bikes, quads, cars, and large trucks gathered as usual over New Year's to start the 31st Dakar in Buenos Aires instead of in Paris or Lisbon. ASO assured everyone it would be a classic Dakar, and it was.

Argentinians have long been avid followers of auto racing, and it was no surprise that an estimated half-million fans turned out for the start of the 5000-mile, 14-day race on January 2. Regular Dakar competitors were overwhelmed by the response throughout the race, where roads were teeming with passionate spectators to the point that it often took a police escort to clear the way for competitors and support crews--and even they got asked for autographs.

This year, all eyes were on the Volks-wagen team of four Race Touareg 2 cars. They had a disastrous race in 2007, when the two leading Race Touaregs were sidelined with serious mechanical problems on the same day in the middle of one of the toughest stages in the sand dunes of Mauritania.

Ever since creating a top-notch team over five years ago, Volkswagen's goal was to be the first to win Dakar with a small-displacement diesel-powered car. Mitsubishi had won the race every year since 2001, but it too developed a new diesel-powered car for this year's Dakar. A third strong team was the X-Raid team of diesel-powered BMW X3s.

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.

Weather also caused cancellation of the second day's stage in the dunes, and the whole entourage of over 2000 people made its way across the Andes through Paso de San Francisco, a 15,600-foot-high pass that caused everyone to feel lightheaded. Oxygen was available in support vehicles and race cars in case anyone needed it. As it was not a competitive day, none of the racers suffered any problems, although at least one support crew had a blown turbo and other maladies from the altitude, which was far higher than anyone had ever experienced in a race.

The next day was a game-changer. Carlos Sainz slid into an unmarked washout and ended upside-down in his Touareg. Although he was unhurt and the car was still driveable, his co-driver injured a shoulder and the official medical team deemed him unfit to continue. Dakar had struck back.

With Sainz out, Mark Miller was in the overall lead, although he did not know it, as he was unaware of Sainz's problem. Near the end of the stage, he got stuck and de Villiers ended up winning the stage and taking the overall lead, just two minutes ahead of Miller. "Today is one of those days where there's a lot to talk about" said Miller. "The special stage has definitely been the most difficult of this Dakar so far. We had to work hard, particularly in the sand. We got stuck several times and had to dig ourselves out."

Roma, in the sole remaining factory Mitsubishi, also got stuck in the sand dunes and had to be towed out taking a maximum penalty of 10 hours that dropped him to 10th place overall. This allowed Gordon to move up to third place behind Miller and de Villiers.

With just two days of racing left, on relatively smooth but fast tracks often used in Argentina's WRC round, VW team orders to de Villiers and Miller were to take it easy--they only had to finish. Gordon was over 90 minutes behind and would be unable to beat them as long as they made no mistakes.

It's difficult to force a racer to drive slowly, so it was no surprise to see de Villiers still win the last stage. He didn't get in trouble with his boss, though, as he had won the Dakar. It was de Villiers' sixth attempt; he became the first African to win the event, and it was the first time a diesel-powered car had won. VW's goal had finally been achieved.

It was also the first time the top three drivers were from English-speaking countries. Second and third places were taken by the only two Americans in the race. Gordon had beaten two factory teams and finished right behind the 80-strong VW factory team with his two Hummers, supported by just 22 people.




Top 10 Finishers
Position Team Vehicle Overall time/difference
1 Giniel de Villiers/Dirk von Zitzewitz (ZA/D) VW Race Touareg 2 48h10m57s
2 Mark Miller/Ralph Pitchford (USA/ZA) VW Race Touareg 2 + 8m59s
3 Robby Gordon/Andy Grider (USA/USA) Hummer + 1h46m15s
4 Ivar Tollefsen/Quin Evans (N/GB) Nissan Navara + 6h04m34s
5 Krzysztof Holowczyc/Jean-Marc Fortin (PL/B) Nissan Navara + 6h37m49s
6 Dieter Depping/Timo Gottschalk (D/D) VW Race Touareg 2 + 8h43m29s
7 Miroslav Zapletal/Tomas Ourednicek (CZ/CZ) Mitsubishi L200 + 11h03m08s
8 Leonid Novitskiy/Oleg Tyupenkin (RUS/RUS) BMW X3 + 13h15m13s
9 Guerlain Chicherit/Matthieu Baumel (F/F) BMW X3 + 14h49m49s
10 Nani Roma/Lucas Cruz Senra (E/E) Mitsubishi Racing Lancer + 17h27m46s


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