DAKAR – IT’S WAR! – Car, bike, truck & quad battle lines set

The first days of any New Year are always a quiet time in the lull before the ramp up to the challenges ahead, but there are always certain attractions to look forward to, like that party, a cricket test, perhaps. And Dakar, of course!

Excitement is building with three days to the start of Dakar 2017, which promises to be a cracker with brilliant fights in prospect in both the car and bike races this year, while the trucks, side-by-sides and quads will ensure the usual spectacular supporting act through daily desert and mountain battles.

The car race promises to be the best in years with the South African Toyotas and the Minis intent to topple last year’s dominant Peugeots and a truly world class field ready to wage a two-week war with a battle a day from 2-14 January.

Giniel de Villiers is the only South African driver among the cars this year alongside regular German navigator Dirk von Zitzewitz in a Gazoo Racing Red Bull Hilux. The Stellenbosch driver is beyond intent to add a Toyota win to his 2009 Volkswagen success.

Fastest Hilux yet
“This is the fastest Hilux I have ever driven,’” de Villiers warned. “Testing has been very good and Nasser beat the Peugeots in Morocco. “The arrival of Al Attiyah at Toyota is also a real asset for the team – he is the fastest man there is and it forces us to raise our level – it is very good!”

Qatari Al Attiyah is also excited by his new Gazoo Red Bull Toyota. “I have found a good compromise this year with the Hilux – is a car that has never won the Dakar, which makes the challenge even more interesting. “It is good to have beaten Peugeot in Spain and Morocco but let us not forget that we are not a factory stable and the altitude factor must be taken into account, so the favorites are the Peugeots with four formidable drivers and the Dakar is so different from the other races.”

There is along list of leading SA-built Toyotas in support of the works, including Zimbabwean Dakar rookie – former SA rally champion and WRC driver Conrad Rautenbach driving with SA navigator Rob Howie. “My goal is to finish my first Dakar,” Rautenbach reported. “A Top 10 would be great but I hope for a clean run to gain experience.” Other leading Toyota entries include former Dakar bike winner Nani Roma, Frenchman Ronan Chabot and Dutch driver Erik van Loon.

But based on the facts at hand, to win the Dakar will mean beating the full factory Peugeot team that includes champion and 12-time winner (yes, you read that right – 6 bike wins and 6 times in a car), Mr Dakar Stefan Peterhansel, who has WRC champions Sebastien Loeb and Carlos Sainz and another Dakar legend, multiple bike winner Cyril Despres and former F1 driver Romain Dumas in support.

“Last year’s victory had a special flavour because the Peugeot program is very close to my heart,” Peterhansel reflected. “The Dakar has evolved a lot: I won it on bikes and cars; without GPS, then with different navigation technologies, in Africa then in South America, and now with Peugeot, but the key to the race remains the same: endurance. “My goal for 2017 is a 13th Dakar title, but I will also be happy to support my teammates if I have to.”

Peugeot victory ‘necessary’
“There are no surprises when you’re in a team like Peugeot,” double-WRC champion and Dakar winner Carols Sainz pointed out. “The goal is necessarily victory, but it will not be easy, even though it will be simpler than last year because we start with a car that has already won.” 9-time WRC champion teammate Loeb is looking forward to keep on learning following his dramatic pace last year. “We are quick, but it is important to get to the end without trouble.”

Both Toyota and Peugeot have to first beat Mini to take Dakar honors though and with four wins in the last five years and WRC star Mikko Hirvonen and Dakar experts Orlando Terranova and Yazeed Al Rajhi among its team, you can never ignore the British brand.

Hirvonen in particular should be seen as a dark horse. “I was delighted with fourth on my first Dakar last year and now that I have that experience behind me and if we can make even fewer mistakes, I hope to do better and even chase for the win. “Of course, it will not be simple against Peugeot and Toyota, but if there is more navigation this year, it is possible.”

A significant number of South African-built cars will compete including the majority of the Toyotas, several Fords and Renaults; among which lurk several dark horses, least of all the South Racing (run by SA lad Scott Abraham) Niel Woolridge-built Ford Rangers driven by Spaniard Xavi Pons and Bolivian Bulasto. The South African-built Thompson Racing Renault Dusters are also are looking forward to a competitive Dakar in 2017 with Argentine Emiliano Spataro leading the charge.

More about the South Africans at Dakar 2017 HERE

Bikes – stemming the orange tide?
The fight is just as hard on two wheels, where European and Sudam riders will be out to take revenge on Aussie Toby Price stealing the victory last year and to finally put an end to the orange KTM domination at Dakar. Austrian manufacturer KTM has basically made the Dakar its own by winning the event 15 years on the trot since 2001 and while it has every intention of continuing its reign, its rivals are desperate to break that spell.

“It was pretty amazing to win the Dakar on my second attempt and take the trophy back to Australia for the first time,” defending champion Price admitted. “Winning in 2016 means the target is very definitely on my back and everybody is going to be gunning for me. “On the other hand once you have won it once, you know it is possible.”

Price will once again be backed by a strong KTM team in 2017 with 2016 runner-up, Slovak rider Stefan Svitko keen to go one better: “For me, the only motivation is the victory, so I battle with my heart.” Also KTM mounted, Dakar lady hero Lala Sainz will be looking to add to her 2016 top 10 and 100% Dakar finishing record.

Spaniards Gerard Farres Guell and Armand Monleon who ended 8th and 10th respectively in 2016 are keen to improve on their results while 2016 stage winners, Austrian Mattias Walkner and Brit Sam Sunderland will be looking to 2017 to being their third time lucky Dakar for their first finishes and Slovak Ivan Jakes is looking for another top ten finish this year.

And while some of the Japanese manufacturers will be putting it all into beating the Austrian team, they will also have to beat another specialist bike maker to win the Dakar this year. Chilean Rally Raid Motorcycle world champion Pablo Quintanilla leads the Husqvarna attack and hopes to improve on his 4th in 2015 and third overall last year. “I trained hard with the team in Spain and in Portugal, Pablo admitted. “I really hope to add a Dakar win to my world title.” Quintanilla will be backed up by Jacopo Cerrutti from Italy at Husqvarna.

Honda ‘cannot fail’
Top of the list of bike makers and riders desperate to topple KTM are Honda and Spaniard Joan Barreda Bort, who dominated early on in 2015 and 2016: “I have a lot of confidence in the team and the team in me,” Bort explained. “If there are no mechanical problems we can be there and win the Dakar, but we cannot afford to fail. ”

Bort will be backed by American Ricky Brabec in Honda’s attempts to win at Dakar for the first time since 1989. “I learned last year, now I know what to do,” Brabec pointed out. “I would like to get a Top 5 and of course, one day I would like to win the Dakar and become the first American to do it.” Other top Hondas will include Frenchman Michel Metge and Portuguese veteran Paulo Goncalves.

Yamaha is also hell-bent on winning the Dakar for the first time since Stephane Peterhansel’s last bike victory in 1998 and Helder Rodriguez heads the blue charge. “I was very happy to finish 5th in my 10th Dakar last year,” the Portuguese rider admitted. “Like always, this Dakar will be very difficult and I will have to be at my best, but I feel more motivated than ever this year.”

French rider Adrian van Beveren was 6th for Yamaha last year. “I still have a lot to learn and my objective is to be at the finish line again.” Italian Alessandro Botturi and French rider Xavier de Soultrait will also ride Yamahas in 2017 with both ready to run well up in the top ten. Spain’s Juan Pedrero Garcia and Frenchman Adrien Metge head up the Sherco TVS charge.

There are of course also three South African rookies on the bike entry list – David Thomas is riding a Husqvarna and Joey Evans and Walter Terblanche are on KTMs.

Behemoth attraction
Beyond the cars and bikes, the trucks always provide a unique Dakar angle and this year should be no different with Iveco’s Dutch 2016 winner Gerard de Rooy looking for a third victory. The Italian truck maker is pulling out all the stops again this year with Argentine WRC star Federico Villagra and another Dutchman, Ton van Genoetten also very much in the chase.

Russia’s Dakar attack continues on the back of four Kamaz trucks chasing victory in the hands of 2015 winner and 2016 runner up Ariat Mardeev, Edoeard Nicolaaiev, Dimitri Sotnikov and Anton Shibalov. They need to fight off a Czech assault in the form of Tatra duo Alec Loprais and Martin Kolomy, while Dutch pair Hans Stacey and Peter Versluis head the MAN charge, Martin van den Brink is in a Renault and South African truck interest hinges around Sean Berriman competing as a mechanic in South Racing’s MAN truck

There are no SA riders in the quad field this year, leaving the likes of Pole Rafael Sonik to fight it out with Ignacio Casale, Josef Macacek and Sergey Kariyakin. A Dakar novelty is this year’s new UTV class for basic buggies that has attracted eight entries from Yamaha and Polaris.

Dakar starts in Asuncion Paraguay  Monday 2 January and heads up north into the Andes through Bolivia to La Paz on 8 January before turning south to the finish in Buenos Aires 14 January.