Tan-Tan-a city in Morocco-is a place that has special meaning to anyone who has been on the Dakar Rally. Why? Because it's where you finally leave civilization and start traversing the Sahara Desert. "You" could be a competitor, a mechanic, a chef, a medic, or even a spectator. It really doesn't matter-whatever your "role" in the Dakar, everyone gets to experience the adventure in one way or another (see sidebar).
From a competitor's viewpoint, the Dakar can be divided into three sections. First, there are the stages in Europe where there are thousands of spectators, yet they are not representative of the stages to come. Here, being fastest might put you in the lead temporarily but will likely have little or no bearing on the final results, and it is easy to lose the event with one slip.
Just ask four-time winner Ari Vatenen, driving a VW Race Touareg in the 2007 Dakar, who lost over 90 minutes when he drowned his engine in a water crossing, essentially putting him out of contention for an overall win.
Once the race crosses the Mediterranean by ferry, the stages in Morocco gradually get more and more difficult. They consist of a mixture of smooth tracks, rough trails, and pure sand dunes. However, the transit roads and the airfields, where the bivouacs are located, are relatively civilized. It's no surprise to see plenty of European race fans in their regular vehicles following the event through Morocco.
Then you reach Tan-Tan-a forsaken town on the southern boundary of Morocco. It's where the paved road ends soon after. Arriving at the bivouac, there is a real surprise for first-timers as they are greeted by a line of hundreds of European motorhomes at the airfield on the edge of town. It's as far as most Dakar fans get-it's like a pilgrimage.
Well before daybreak the next day, everyone on the event sets off on a rough track that leads to the border with Mauritania. It's a disputed border-this means there are minefields and one needs special permission to cross. After five days, the rally is now getting really serious for the competitors.
The officials open the border crossing and everyone involved in the rally convoys across, keeping to the safe "track" marked by cairns and used tires. From there on, it's essentially a straight blast across a few hundred miles of flat and relatively smooth desert terrain to small towns such as Zouerat and Atar in the middle of the bleak and windswept Sahara Desert. Normally it's one of the driest places in the world, but this year it was wet and muddy after it rained for several hours just as the competitors were transiting across the border.
A cursory glance at the final results of the 2007 Dakar make it look like a rerun of the previous year's event. Yes, Mitsubishi won again for the seventh straight time, with Stephane Peterhansel taking the win for the third time in a Mitsubishi Pajero/Montero Evolution.
However, while the record books will show that Mitsubishi won, it was not a clear-cut victory. Volkswagen has been putting on a serious attempt to unseat Mitsubishi's record number of wins. Last year, VW lead until the dunes in Mauritania, where the Mitsubishi drivers romped ahead and held onto their lead for a relatively easy victory.
This year, two VW drivers, Carlos Sainz and Giniel de Villiers, were in strong command from the start through the middle of the event. The Mitsubishi team was starting to get very worried, as they could not seem to win any stages. But bad luck hit the VW team when both the lead cars suffered mechanical problems on the second marathon stage in the remotest part of Mauritania. They lost several hours, allowing Mitsubishi to take the lead, which they held to the finish. In the end, VW had won 11 of the 14 stages. The other three were won by Hummer, BMW, and Schlesser-Ford (a buggy). Although no Mitsubishi drivers won any stages, their consistency paid off.
Mark Miller was the leading VW driver, finishing in Fourth position, the best finish for an American since Malcolm Smith finished fourth in 1988 in a Range Rover. As an aside, it should be noted that American motorcycle riders do quite well in the Dakar-Chris Blais finished Third overall on his KTM in the bike class. Robby Gordon managed to win one special stage in his Hummer, but he had too much downtime in the early stages, so he eventually finished in Eighth position. This year his co-driver was American Andy Girder, a former bike rider.
Other Americans included Mike Petersen from Las Vegas, a regular on the Baja and American LeMans sports car circuit, who finished in 23rd place in a buggy. Ronn Bailey, a colorful amateur racer also from Las Vegas, did not finish in his buggy.
The vast majority of competitors in the Dakar are amateurs who enter for the thrill of it. Most are in fairly stock Toyota, Mitsubishi, and Nissan SUVs. There are a few trucks but the most popular race vehicles are the Bowler and Desert Warrior, which are specials made in England based on Land Rovers. There were 35 that started and 21 finished-the highest in 18th place right behind the factory cars and ahead of all but a couple of privateers in buggies. Although they are nowhere as fast as the factory SUVs, these striking-looking vehicles appear to be a great steed for privateers.