You always hear how big it is but until you actually see it, the scale of the Dakar is a little hard to comprehend. Technical commission (scrutineering), despite being 4 lanes wide takes three days! From the ship that docked a week ago teams congregated in the service area of a technology park outside the centre of the city.
There’s no way to accurately describe how big the Dakar Rally is. The amount of fans in attendance to the ceremonial start was absolutely mind boggling. To put this in perspective for our American fans, the best way to describe the ceremony, pageantry, presentation, racers and world media coverage would be like combining 10 Daytona 500 opening ceremonies and 20 Baja 1000 contingencies, and string them together end to end across a major city like Los Angeles or New York. All of this was amazingly executed in a ultra professional and timely manner.
Thousands upon thousands of fans lined up to see the racers make their way through the streets of Buenos Aires and into the historic down-town area of the capital city. It literally felt like the whole city was there.
The ceremonial start was a stage outside the president’s palace in the centre of Buenos Aires. There was glitter, glamour and badly placed speakers and 150 cars and although people will remember seeing the new Peugeots and Al-Attiyah waving the Argentinean flag it will only be Robby Gordon the crowd will be talking to. As much as they cheered for past winners and hero’s of the Dakar Rally, when Robby drove up the fans chanted “Robby Robby Robby” over and over. In true showman style he jumped the podium again. And I was standing there watching it was a very big smile on my face! It was really cool to see people of another country embrace our best chance at having an American win the Dakar.
The Dakar is without a doubt the olympics of motorsport; it is a matter of national pride to enter this race. Each team represents their respective countries with honor; flying their countries flag as they’re announced to the race fans in attendance.
Here they can finish the things they didn’t quite manage to before the ship left, such as fine tune the settings, double-check all the nuts and bolts… and finish welding the subframes… and it’s wondering around here chatting to random people you realise just how far and wide teams have come. One of the stunning G-Force New Lines has the Turkmenistan flag on the side of it, the Cocunut Racing team have come all the way from Australia, there are South Africans, Russians, Canadians, Japanese… but the award for the furthest travelled must go to the Mongolians who drove their service truck from Ulan Baatur in Mongolia, all the way through Russia for 8 days none stop, left the car in France, flew back to Mongolia for a month and then travelled the other way around the world to meet the car again in Argentina! Oh, and the two of them will be sitting in the back of two brand new Hungarian Land Cruisers that were taken from the factory and turned into Dakar racers in 4 ½ weeks.
Our featured driver Benediktas Vanagas in the General Financing – Autopaslauga by Pitlane Hi-Lux (the gorgeous black one with the knight motif on the side) had a bit of work to do. A welcome change for the petrol powered Toyota teams is a 1mm increase in the size of the restrictor plate. It doesn’t sound too much but actually it is enough to give a noticeable power boost. However, it’s not just a simple bolt-in job as the ecu and sensors need to be recalibrated and so the mechanics had some fun in the rain. Compared to some of the beasts racing here the Hi-Lux is quite an understated looking car but on the strip next to the service park Benediktas put his foot down and the sound the angry 5l V8 made was gorgeous. Maybe twin turbo diesels have levels of torque enough to make Kamaz drivers jealous, but nothing sounds like a V8!
Talking of the Russian truck team, the King of Kamaz himself strolled over to say hello, Mr Vladimir Chagin, 7 times a winner and the all time stage win record holder (63, 4 more than Stephane Peterhansel). Not many sporting legends wonder around the paddock to chat in the drizzle!
On the opposite side of the scale, one of the smallest cars in the rally are the Coronel brothers Tim and Tom in their 800kg single-seater McRae buggies. Twin brothers in twin cars. “Lightness is good for the Dakar,” Tim explained. “You can brake much later for corners and the handling is excellent.” With a 237bhp 1400cc Suzuki Hayabusa engine in the back it also goes quite well too! Weight saving has been the biggest development focus and when you can shave nearly 10% off the body weight you can expect noticeably better performance. “30kg of that came from the tyres and we have an amazing new design from Maxxis that is 5kg per tyre lighter than last year.” That’s quite impressive seeing as the tyres are quite small… but the sidewalls are so strong that they are actually bullet proof! We’ll be seeing these scaled up in ULTRA4 racing before too long.
One of the most standard vehicles in the race is the No 420 the Dakar Dream Land Rover 110. Some of the service vehicles are better prepped… but Ali Gharib was all smiles as he explained that the engine, gearbox, transfer case and axles are all standard Land Rover. The shafts are Ashcroft, the rear trailing arms are a lot longer and the selection of shocks on each corner are seriously heavy-duty ones, but for Solihul fans and lovers of the underdog, this is all Land Rover!
On the shortlist for the most stunning vehicle award is to the El Martilio team Jimco buggy. It’s basically a Class 1 Baja buggy with a flattened Dodge Ram front grill and some lovely flowing curves, but there have been a lot of changes from a SCORE car to a Dakar one and we’ll go more in depth about those changes later.
The paper trail with crowds of non-plussed teams wondering around getting their check-in cards stamped wasn’t too much fun but then it was out into the long queue for scrutineering. There is a long list of acceptable parts that ASO publish… in fact, it’s a book… and although everything was checked before the cars were put on the boat in France they seal several components such as the air restrictor box so that there can be no tampering during the event. If an official pops around to your service area and the seal is broken you better have a very good reason why!
Benedikas watched with a hint of trepidation as the Hi-Lux was hoisted up and the officials went to work with their seals and pliers. Forensic scientists are not as thorough as ASO but all was well and the car was led out to spend the night in Parc Ferme.
Pretty much every car you see here is spotlessly turned out and shiny, (although that will change very soon!) but one that looks like it needs a bit of polish is the Foton team buggy from Chile, co-driven by American Bryan Garvey. “The car won’t shine on the WRC style tracks but it was made for the dunes which is its natural habitat. Dakar co-driving is a bit different from Baja driving with having to read the book, look at the Terrtrip and terrain all at the same time.” We’ll be following his progress along with his Chilean team racing Chinese Fotons!
One car you will definitely see a lot of is Guerlain Chicherit in his zebra striped buggy that was Nasser Al-Attiyah’s ride last year, but my favourite car in the event is No 353, a 3l V6 VW Tdi powered buggy with a VW bug body!
Most people seem quite relaxed despite the horrors that await them bit one with more butterflies than most is Mark Powel. He’s never been to the Dakar before, despite many years doing desert raids in his adopted country of the UAE and was very chuffed to be driving a press car… but had to stand in at the last minute and is now co-driving Marek Dabrowski in the No 311 Orlen Toyota.
The first stage is 147km of fast flat land with a few jumps and lots of 90 degree turns. To use the words of the guy doing the press briefing this morning, nothing special. The 500km second stage is where the real action starts… And then it’s just 11 more days of the same insanity!
Let’s Do This!