Two hundred and fifty million years ago, during the Paleozoic era, scientists say that Africa and South America were united in a supercontinent referred to as Pangaea. In 2009, the two continents were reunited once again by the Amaury Sporting Organization (ASO), as the famous Dakar Rally was relocated from northern Africa to South America. In 2010, the longest off-road race in the world returned to South America yet again.
Even though the Dakar Rally covers more ground in one race than an entire year of the SCORE racing series, comparisons with the legendary Baja 1000 are inevitable. Both races hold the same appeal for off-road enthusiasts: the pride that comes from surviving such a grueling endeavor-and for one lucky team, the gratification of knowing that you are the best in the world. Given the similarities, it's not surprising to learn that Dakar and Baja attract some of the same drivers as well. In the 2009 Dakar Rally, American Mark Miller finished Second in a Volkswagen Touareg, while Robby Gordon placed Third in his Hummer H3.
The two drivers returned to South America in 2010, with 2009 SCORE series champion Gordon adding 2008 SCORE champion and fellow Trophy Truck driver B.J. Baldwin to his team at the last minute to pilot a second Hummer H3. Miller, Gordon, and Baldwin all had hopes of being the first Americans to win the prestigious Dakar Rally. In order to do so, they would have to cross 5,500 miles of inhospitable terrain in a mere 17 days, criss-crossing the Andes, and do so faster than 362 other competitors from around the world.
The Dakar Rally is organized similar to the Tour de France, which is no coincidence, since ASO is responsible for coordinating both events. Each day's activities include "liaisons" on public roads, along with special stages through terrain as varied as sand dunes, silt beds, and rocky mountain passes. Only the special stages are timed, and at the end of the race, the driver with the lowest combined time from all 16 stages is crowned the champion.
Things were looking good for both Miller and Gordon early in the race, as mechanical issues plagued other front-runners at a rapid rate. Spaniard Nani Roma, who won the opening stage, rolled his BMW X-Raid on the second stage of the rally from Cordoba to La Rioja. Last year's champion, Giniel de Villiers, had engine issues during Stage Three in the white sand dunes between La Rioja and Fiambala. The setback cost the South African five hours of time, an insurmountable quantity in such a tightly contested battle. Getting the impression that this is a tough race?
BMW driver and Dakar legend Stephane Peterhansel lost a driveshaft on Stage Five in the rocky tracks near Antofagasta, and lost two hours on the leaders. The Frenchman bounced back the next day and placed Second on Stage Four, a mere one second behind Robby Gordon. Things were looking good for Gordon at that point, but the next day he became hopelessly stuck in the sand dunes of lquique for two hours. After that, Gordon pushed hard to stay in the hunt for the overall win, but the leaders never made any mistakes that Gordon could capitalize on and he finished in Eighth place overall.
One of the tacticians of the race, free of errors, was American Mark Miller in his diesel-powered Volkswagen Touareg. Miller was the very model of consistency on every stage, just as he had been the previous year. His only predicament was that he was just one of five top-ranked drivers behind the wheel of the same Volkswagen race machines that won the rally in 2009. Miller found himself in a three-way battle with teammates Carlos Sainz and Nasser Al-Attiyah, all comfortably ahead of Fourth-place competitor Peterhansel by nearly two hours.
While Miller enjoyed a podium finish in 2009, Spaniard Sainz and Qatari Al-Attiyah were looking to clean the skeletons out of their closets. Sainz, the former WRC champion nicknamed "El Matador," was leading the Dakar Rally in 2009 before doing irreparable damage to his Touareg when he plunged into a ravine on Stage 12. Al-Attiyah, previously behind the wheel of a BMW, missed a staggering nine checkpoints in 2009 before being disqualified. Navigation is key in the Dakar Rally, and the co-drivers are certainly not just along for the ride. On the contrary, they have to guide and direct the drivers with split-second instructions-without the aid of pre-running the course or relying on GPS.
Both Sainz and Al-Attiyah had learned from their mistakes, and despite pushing each other to run at a blistering pace, neither faltered in 2010. Sainz took the overall win and Al-Attiyah placed Second, a mere two minutes behind in a race that spanned over 47 hours. With Miller in Third place, Volkswagen made history with three diesel Touaregs sweeping the podium.
While Argentina and Chile have been good to Volkswagen, there are rumors afoot that the Dakar Rally will return to its traditional home in north Africa in 2011. It remains to be seen if Volkswagen will be able to continue their domination if the race returns to its birthplace or, like prehistoric Pangaea, their success will be relegated to the history books. At least until next year's event, Volkswagen and Carlos Sainz can rest assured knowing that they are the very best in the world.
How Does It Compare to Baja?
Comparisons between Baja and Dakar are inevitable, but what do the two races have in
common and how do they differ? This quick primer highlights the major differences between the two races.
||1,000 miles (approx.)
||47 hours over 17 days
||Maximum 31 hours, consecutive
||GPS and course markers
||the night prior to stage
||Required to make checkpoints
||Results in time penalties
||Only from authorized race participants
||Outside assistance allowed
||Limited wheel travel and no
||No turbochargers on gasoline
||onboard tire inflation for 4WD;
|intake size restrictions;
|fenders and lights required
Dakar Summer Camp: Life in the Bivvy
Dakar organizing body ASO sets up a rolling camp called a bivouac at the end of each day. These huge camps are logistical marvels that are fenced off and only accessible to race teams, credentialed media, and local VIPs. Once inside the bivouac, you have unlimited access to all of the race teams right before your eyes. However, don't expect to strike up a conversation with Robby Gordon on the finer points of shock valving.
Drivers and riders are often recovering from the strenuous activity of the rally while their support teams are partaking in their own strenuous activity: repairing damage sustained during the special stages. Each bivouac holds not only the teams and their vehicles, but also a dining hall to feed 2,500 hungry people, showers to knock the dust off at the end of the day, and a media center complete with a rolling video editing studio that produces race coverage in near-real time. All before packing up and leapfrogging ahead of the racers to the next bivouac to repeat the process once more. -Harry Wagner