Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Feature - Sainz Conquers Dakar

It may be called Dakar, but the event is back in Chile and Argentina, with Buenos Aires providing both the start and finish lines. 2009 was not kind to car manufacturers as the global recession saw many factory racing teams fold to financial pressures. The biggest casualty was the dominating Mitsubishi team that had won the prestigious event twelve times it's 31-year history. There was also talk that the Volkswagen team might not made it back as well, but the lure of the desert was too great and Sainz is back in his diesel powered Race Touareg looking for revenge. Sainz is backed up with last years winner, de Villiers, along with American Mark Miller, and Nasser Al-Attiyah of Qatar rounding out the team.

With Mitsubishi out of the picture, VW has turned from up-and-comer to title contender, however they have not left a void in the challengers department. Germany's X-Raid team, composing of ex-Mitsubishi refugees Nani Roma and Stephane Peterhansel piloting the BMW X3's look competitive as well as the American Hummer team. Robby Gordon had a very impressive 3rd place finish in 2009 at the helm of the unconventional (by Dakar standards) Hummer. Of course we cannot forget the other classes doing battle, the bikes, quads and of course the giants of motorsport – the rally trucks.

The 2010 edition started New Years day, to the cheers of 300,000 spectators lining the streets of Buenos Aires to see the 362 competitors leave the starting ramp to start a 16-day, 9,000 km journey through some of the most rugged terrain South America has to offer. Cruising to the first special stage, Argentina's usually hot January weather gave way to some severe storms that made conditions slippery and swelled rivers making fording a challenge. But it was Nani Roma that would tear up the roads in the BMW X3, taking the lead on the first stage. However, Roma would be caught out on the second, sliding the X3 off a muddy corner and rolling into a ravine, loosing 15-min. VW's Al-Attiyah took advantage, winning the stage and taking the overall lead in the rally. In the trucks, Russian Valdamir Chagin was romping through the stages in his Kamaz, while David Casteu was the early bike leader.

The third day traded rain and mud for sun and the familiar arid terrain. That didn't help Nani Roma as he rolled his BMW off a very large cliff for the second time in as many days, this time ending his rally for good. However, his teammate, Stephane Peterhansel took up the slack winning the day and taking the overall lead. Robbie Gordons 2WD Hummer struggled through both the second and third days to loose touch with the leaders by an hour.

The fourth day would see competitors experience the sand dunes for the first time, as the rally exited Argentina and moved into Chile. Peterhansel strengthened his lead in the BMW, while KTM's Cyril Despres to command of the bike class while Argentine Marcos Patronelli took command of the quads on his Yamaha Raptor.

As the rally moved north along the Chilean coast, Volkswagen began to show their dominance. With Peterhansel destroying a driveshaft, Sainz took over the lead with teammates Al-Attiyah and Miller backing him up in second and third. On the return trip south, both the BMW and Hummer crews began to claw back some time in the high altitude dunes, as navigational errors and steep terrain played havoc with the Volkswagens. But the top three Race Touaregs were able to keep their 1-2-3 order going into the rest day.

After a day off, Al-Attiyah decided it was time to put on a charge, throwing caution to the wind, flinging his Race Touareg through the rocky terrain to take a massive chunk of time out of race leader, Sainz. While the leaders battled it out, the rest of the field fell off the road, as stage 10's rocky terrain put several competitors on their roofs. As the race moved back into Argentina, the VW's continue to dominate with BMW nipping their heels, while Despres, Chagin and Patronelli continue to dominate their classes.

As the race pushed its way back through Argentina, on its way to Buenos Aires, the leader boards in all divisions changed little since the rest day, but that doesn't mean there aren't any fights going on. The battle between Sainz and Al-Attiyah for the overall win continued to rage while the BMW's of Peterhansel and Chicherit continue to haul in the Volkswagens. Patronelli held the lead the quad class, despite having to hold off his brother also riding a Yamaha. KTM rider, Cyril Despres continues to hold off a charging field of riders, holding over an hour lead, while Chagin dominates the trucks.

The final stages leading into Buenos Aires proved tense as the ultra-competitive natures of both Sainz and Al-Attiyah made for a gripping battle to the finish line. With over 8,000 km covered, only a few precious minutes separated the two on the final stage. Hard charging, tire punctures, off-course excursions and even the odd smack between the two culminated in a final charge for Buenos Aires. However, the narrow roads of the stage suited Sainz's rally driving style better as he threw the big Touareg around like a little rallycar to win his first ever Dakar and Volkswagens second in a row. Al-Attiyah and Miller round out a VW sweep of the podium, with the BMW's of Peterhansel and Chicherit rounding out the top five. If not for braking that driveshaft earlier in the race, Peterhansel would have topped the podium, proving that the next edition of the Dakar will likely be even more exciting.

In the other classes, Patronelli, Despres and Chagin proved the class of each field, winning top honors for Yamaha, KTM and Kamaz respectfully.  

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