The Dakar Can Only Get Bigger.
The Dakar Rally has begun. Events leading up to 1st of January have been a mixed bag of commercial interests and a genuine refection of the affection for one of the most popular motorsports events of the past three decades.
The Dakar (formerly Paris-Dakar) has always held a certain inexplicable mysticism for people such as myself. As a youngster I'd see images of the Paris-Dakar and wonder why? Why would people put themselves through what appears to be a new level of discomfort in cars and bikes? Years later I find myself asking why not?
The Dakar will the cover distance of the whole Formula One season in just two weeks, about 5,625 miles (9,500Km Ocean to Ocean), over difficult terrain in both Argentina and Chile. With altitude and sand dunes, hard and soft terrain, the challenge is as real as the Dakar body count. As I write this there’s already news that the Dakar has claimed the life of a female spectator.
It's debatable whether the Dakar can be classified as the “Everest" of Endurance Rallying, but, it is undoubtedly the 'Formula One' of Rallying in terms of its popularity and importance, by starting off the motorsports year in high octane.
This year’s Dakar rally raid will probably send the Dakar's popularity to stratospheric heights. The Dakar's popularity is already enormous, with audiences in 189 countries. According to The Dakar Rally Organisers press release, the 2010 Rally Raid will field a total of 184 Bikes and Quad (4 Wheelers), 138 Cars, and 50 Trucks.
Being a man of African origins I readily admit that this new level of confidence is rooted in the Rally organisers (A.S.O) decision to switch location from its spiritual home in Africa to new terrain in South America.
Ironically when Thierry Sabine (R.I.P) created the Paris-Dakar in 1979, South America was subject to political instability with horrors of Death Squads, Coups and Military Juntas. Today, political instability (aka Terrorism) has inhibited Africa's opportunity to continue to successful hold the Dakar, particular in the North and it might be sometime before the Dakar returns there. The severe nature of how terrorism has imposed itself on sports was further illustrated today by a suicide terror attack at a volleyball game in Pakistan. However since the Dakar moved location last year, it has also acquired a new level of confidence.
This new level of confidence which ‘fortunately’ runs counter intuitively to current economic realities also brings with it a new attitude towards fuel, team preparation, networking, and Bivouac environmental protection.
Commercially, no other team has tried to reflect a commitment to the spirit and marketability of the new Dakar than VW Motorsports. Volkswagen is hardly visible on motorsports international stage the whole year round, but, the company engages in a coordinated media campaign leading into the Dakar. This year a new Race Touareg 2 iPhone application, fans can follow the teams progress.
The success of Volkswagen Motorsports in the Dakar last year with South African Giniel de Villiers winning a historic championship in the car class has been a motivating factor in VW Motorsports clinical preparation and marketing going into the 2010 Dakar. The win in 2009 was the first time a diesel powered engine had won The Dakar, and the V6 TDi that managed to do it belonged to Volkswagen.
VW Motorsport takes the Dakar very seriously. So seriously in fact, it’s rather difficult to envision another competitive team beating their purpose built ‘Armada’ in the car category.
Earlier this month VW released the news of Grande Brasile ship departing from France to South America with 60 tonnes of material and 17 support vehicles for the VW team. However, after reading the article in depth I came to realise that the ship ‘Grande Brasile’ was supplied by the Dakar Rally organisers, the A.S.O (Amaury Sports Organisation) to ship the necessities of all the European teams participating in the Dakar. VW Motorsports media machine hijacked the story to promote its intent and commitment to the Dakar. Rather clever I say.
But, in addition to VW Motorsports media blitz, they have a good plan for success, demonstrable by employing some of the top talent in Rally. Recruits include FiA Middle Eastern Rally Champion, Qatari Nasser Al Attiyah, WRC legend Carlos Sainz, current Dakar Champion Ginial de Villiers, American Mark Miller, and Brazilian Mauricio Neves.
According to the Danish VW Director of Motorsport Kris Nissen "The Dakar represents an excellent platform for an internationally active manufacturer like Volkswagen to demonstrate technical expertise, and this in the toughest motorsport discipline overall". Volkswagens’ intent is to take the Dakar Trophy back to Wolfburg, at flat out speed.
Other competitors in the Car Class may struggle against the VW Armada, but, I'd still like to see Robby Gordon Motorsports do well in its Toyo Tires sponsored H3 Hummer. I hope to see Robby Gordon excel over the next two weeks because he represents the spirit of motorsports in the same vein as Eddie Jordan and Ken Tyrell. He represents “the little car that could”.
Robby Gordon runs single Cars in both NASCAR series which means he might struggle to get sponsors compared to the bigger teams. In fact he recently lost Jim Beam as a NASCAR sponsor. Yet he's ambitious enough to take on off road rallies and keep moving. There is hope for all of us.
There's also the environmental aspect of the Dakar brought to the forefront through Brazilian ‘Valtra Eco Mitsubishi Team’ and Driver Klever Kolberg. The flex-fuel (Sport Flex) Mitsubishi Pajero Kolberg takes to the Dakar will run on Ethanol and has the backing of the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association, UNICA.
There's a noble purpose at the heart of what Klever Kolberg and the Valtra Eco Team are trying to do, but I simply don't trust the Sugarcane Industry. As such, I can't help but feel that the purpose is overall tainted by the Sugarcanes Industry's darker profit motives. Conveniently there’s no such crisis of conscience in the Bike class, but that doesn’t mean it is free of controversy.
In the Bike class I doubt there'll be any other manufacturer that can rival the preparation that KTM have put into the Dakar despite being slightly thrown off by a new 450cc limit imposed by the A.S.O. According to sources, KTM had already developed a 690cc Bike specifically for the Dakar which led to a bit of a spat between the OEM and the A.S.O. Spain's Marc Coma riding a Repsol KTM will presumably attempt to defend the title he won in 2009 holding off 2007 champion Frenchman Cyril Despres.
For aesthetic purposes I’m keen to find out how the Chinese Manufactured Bikes JinCheng and its representative New Power Team get on. Anyone who has travelled to Africa lately will have noticed the scope and reach of JinCheng in Africa's transportation market. Writing this piece, I have never seen a JinCheng Enduro Bike, I'm intrigued.
Moving on to the Trucks, and the the only team of prominence is eight time winners Russian (that's The Russian Republic of Tartastan) Kemaz Masters Team. The Kamaz Master Team will be taking three trucks into the Dakar hoping to build on last year’s victory by Firdaus Kabirov, and probably convince Daimler AG who own a small share of KamAZ that they are worthy of a bigger investment by the Germans.
The Dakar Truck 2009 Champion Kabirov will handle Kamaz Truck number 500. The "Tsar" of the Dakar Vladmir Chagin will drive in Kamaz Truck number 501 while the third Truck number 505 will be driven by Mardeev IIgazar. We should see how everyone gets on after the 14 stages. One thing is certain, despite a perpetual body count that seems to increase annually, the Dakar in South America will only get bigger, lets hope nothing else spoils it for everyone.