Well, not quite yet, but it’s already time to get the new season of motorsport underway with the 2010 running of the Dakar Rally on Jan. 2.
But don’t let the name deceive you, the 2010 event (the 31st running of epic rally) will not take place in Africa, but in the South American countries of Argentina and Chile, after the event moved there last year in the wake of terrorist threats on the rally’s traditional Saharan route.
Despite the different setting (and what you would think of as a pretty anti-social timetable), nearly 400 cars, bikes, quads, and trucks are entered in a field that mixes world famous names and manufacturers with amateurs who enter the Dakar simply for the challenge.
And what a challenge.
The 2010 edition sees 14 stages tacked across two weeks as competitors will be timed on 4,800 km of Special Stage amongst over 9,000 km of driving through some of the least car and people friendly terrain on earth.
Of the entrants, most attention will be taken by the most numerous of the classes—the bikes and the cars.
The bike class once more sees KTM as the ride of choice, despite makers Aprilia and Sherco joining the field. Spaniard Marc Coma returns to defend the 2009 title he won by nearly 90 minutes. Re-joining him in the battle will be last year’s runner-up and 2007 winner Cyril Despres, who is also aboard a KTM.
The non-KTM charge could well be led by last year’s third place finisher David Fretigne on a Yamaha, and Dutchman Frans Verhoeven, winner of two stages en route to eight overall last year on a KTM, but moves to BMW for his 2010 assault.
The car class is perhaps where the major upheaval has been, perennial factory runner Mitsubishi withdrawing their factory effort after a disappointing 2009 race that saw all but one of the highly acclaimed team retire. While several of the "Racing Lancer" machines are entered by the JMB Stradale Off-Road squad, it leaves the formidable VW squad as the only factory runners.
The TDI engine in the VW Touareg is as big a force in the Dakar as in every other form of racing it’s touched (the Dakar organisers the Amaury Sports Organisation (ASO) being the latest sanctioning body to move to limit the advantage the technology gives). But the car is only half the package VW have once more brought to the Dakar.
Last year's champion Giniel de Villiers returns alongside the man he would have lost to, Carlos Sainz, had the former WRC champion not rolled his car into a ravine in the closing days. Again, staying on with the team will be American Mark Miller, whose second last year was the highest ever finish for an American on the Dakar. However, there will be a fourth potential challenger for the title from VW’s stable in Qatari Nasser Al-Attiyah, who led early last year in his BMW before being disqualified.
The biggest threat to VW dominance (other than the before mentioned 9,000 km) could come from two corners. The first is the BMW running X-Raid squad Al-Attiyah left. To some extent the team has taken up the slack from Mitsubishi’s withdrawal, taking on two of their former drivers in multiple winner Stephane Peterhansel and Nani Roma (Mitsubishi’s sole survivor twelve months ago) alongside Guerlain Chicherit.
The other threat comes from the Robby Gordon and his trio of Hummers with fellow American Ronn Bailey and Chilean Carlo De Gavardo joining the team. Gordon finished third in class last year on a course he admits did not suit his car.
“Last year was more of a WRC rally type course and on that we’re beat,” said Gordon.“ “Six or seven days in the sand will make a huge difference. We’re good in the desert.”
What could be good news for Gordon is that the 2010 route promises more dunes than the previous South American rally.
A final mention must go to the truck class, probably one of the more insane forms of racing the world has devised. It sees professional racing crews (often three strong) entered together with the support trucks of many of the car and bike squads so as to assist their teammates on the stage.
Lastly, a mention of the Truck class. These are not the pickups of the Camping World Series, but real trucks, a class that mixes professional racing squads and service and supply trucks for many of the top bike and car teams. Russian manufacturer Kamax has won the class a record eight times and looks set to do so again with the top two crews, led by Firdaus Kabirov and Vladimir Chagin both driving Kamaz units.
While you would have to be insane to bet against them, there will be international interest around the participation of former F1, touring car, and Le Mans driver Jan Lammers.
The Dakar gets underway Jan. 2 with 250km of timed stage. You can follow the rally on their official Web site (in previous years they have made it possible to follow the race live).